Four Mexican nutritionists debunk the myths and share facts about the effect of diet in relation to the coronavirus.
Faced with a pandemic that still has no cure, it makes no sense to glorify or demonize certain foods, because these –by themselves– cannot cure or heal humanity.
Diet is one component of the not fully understood area of balancing health, which not only involves nutrients and organs, but also rest cycles and ways of managing emotional stress, among many other tangible and intangible factors.
At the center of all this complexity is the immune system, which determines how the body defends itself against viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. The law is simple: the stronger the body’s defense against infectious organisms and invading viruses, the more likely that Covid-19 will not be lethal.
In order to explain precisely how to increase the possibility of prevention and survival, four nutrition professionals share the best nutritional strategies to stay one step ahead in the individual struggle against the pandemic, in an interview with Tec Review.
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According to Griselda López Córdova, coordinator of clinical research studies at the Salvador Zubirán National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition (INCMNSZ), the best we can do to prevent against any disease is to have a good diet that, within the different aspects involved, must be varied and complete.
Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and meat, in suitable portions for each individual, are part of the diet which will strengthen the immune system.
“This is the best strategy we have to prevent different diseases, including the impact that Covid-19 could have. Although, whether someone contracts the disease or not goes beyond diet”, clarifies López Córdova.
The state of the immune system is not defined only by diet, but also by the quality of sleep, physical exercise and stress management, according to this expert, who also considers that all these elements, alongside others, will determine the strength of defenses and, therefore, the amount of protection provided when a person is exposed to coronavirus.
“Your amount of protection against Covid-19 increases if your diet is adequate. But it’s not everything, because if that were the case, we would just prevent all diseases with diet. Whereas, if a disease is contracted, having a good immune system will determine the path that the body will follow for its recovery,” says the INCMNSZ specialist.
According to López, even if there is no feeding pattern that prevents Covid-19, maintaining a healthy diet can help the body so that, in case of infection, it has greater defenses to be able to respond positively to the disease.
On the other hand, Ana María Tello Hernández, academic secretary of the Mexican Nutriology Association (AMENAC), confirms that a balanced and personalized diet can positively influence the strengthening of the immune system.
There are many important nutrients in the everyday diet that contribute to the correct functioning of the body, but if you are looking for a greater benefit to the immune system, you have to consider a personalized combination of vitamins and minerals which, according to Tello Hernández, are as follows:
It is mainly found in fruits such as guava, kiwi, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries, or in vegetables such as broccoli, chili peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, parsley, peppers, and other vegetables.
Found in some vegetable oils, nuts, and whole grain cereals.
It can be found in foods of animal origin such as milk, eggs, cheese, meat, and in some fats such as butter. And in its plant form, in cherries, carrots, tomatoes, melon, papaya, and dark green vegetables.
It is found in green leafy vegetables, fruits, whole grain cereals, and some offal, such as liver.
Found in foods of animal origin such as red meat, fish, eggs, liver, and dairy products.
Located in shellfish, fish, liver, nuts, legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils), whole grain cereals, meat, eggs, and dairy products.
It is found mainly in red meat, fish, shellfish, and eggs.
Ana Tello also says that, when talking about the immune system, it is important to take into account the role that the microbiota (beneficial bacteria) play in the intestine.
“The microbiota helps nutrients to be properly absorbed so that they can help as they should. Probiotics are very important in order to strengthen this microbiota. They are living microorganisms that survive passing through the gastrointestinal tract and have beneficial effects on health, while helping to improve the intestinal microbial balance. These microorganisms are found naturally in fermented dairy products such as yogurt or kefir,” explains AMENAC’s academic secretary.
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To complement the list of components that help to invigorate the immune system, Yaqui Valenzuela Schejtman, a nutritionist who is a member of the AMENAC board of directors (with responsibility for logistics), says that a very important relationship has been seen with the vitamin D deficiency in terms of the prevalence of coronavirus, a factor that can be avoided as follows:
“The way that humans get vitamin D is through contact with sunlight for about 20 minutes a day. This should not happen during times when the sunlight is very strong. Instead of going out in the sun at 2 in the afternoon, it is better to do it at 4, and let the sun shine on a third of the body, such as arms and legs,” says this expert.
However, Valenzuela Schejtman warned that false advice abounds about strengthening the immune system, such as drinking a protein shake with minced green chili, drinking a cup of coffee with a little dissolved coconut oil, or eating only pineapple during the day.
“It is also very fashionable to drink orange juice, but the problem is that the moment the juice comes into contact with the sun’s rays, the vitamin C is lost. This means that it is not a functional food,” says this nutrition expert.
Looking ahead, she believes that the current pandemic will have a positive effect, because it gives humanity a opportunity to change priorities and conclude that it is necessary to abandon unhealthy eating habits.
“Now is a very good time to start making changes in habits so as to avoid health problems in the long run, so that when you reach a mature age you have a good quality of life, and not one based on taking lots of medication. This is also the point of a healthy diet,” says Valenzuela.
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Karen Czacki Halkin, first secretary of the Mexican College of Nutritionists (CMN), says that people interested in following a diet conducive to strengthening the immune system, and not getting sick so easily from COVID-19, have to talk with nutritional professionals.
They should be neither food chemists nor biologists, but as a minimum requirement, nutritionists, according to Czacki Halkin. In addition, during the consultation they should consider weight, height, age, and the health situation of the patient, in order to assign them the most suitable diet.
However, there are nutritionists who violate codes of ethics and perform activities which do not correspond to them, warned the CMN specialist.
“Unfortunately, in Mexico there are nutritionists who prescribe or sell medicines. They are not authorized to do this; even if they are natural medicines, they are still medicines, and only a doctor, not a nutritionist, is authorized to prescribe them,” says Czacki.
For this reason, people who go to the nutritionist must make sure that he or she has a professional license, and preferably must be certified by the CMN, the only institution which, according to Czacki, grants certifications to nutritionists in Mexico.