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News18 » India
8-min read

Keep Calm and Eat Khakra Pizza, Gur Laddoos: Nutritionists on How to Boost Immunity in the time of Coronavirus

In India, due to widespread misinformation, many people have stopped eating chicken, despite poultry being one of the primary sources of Vitamin B6, as well as protein, which are both required to boost immunity.

Simantini Dey | News18.com

Updated:March 21, 2020, 7:31 PM IST
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Keep Calm and Eat Khakra Pizza, Gur Laddoos: Nutritionists on How to Boost Immunity in the time of Coronavirus
Photo for representation.

Instagram feeds are full of pictures of home-cooked meals these days. kahlua cakes, prawn curry, egg biryani, lasagne — you name it and someone on your Instagram friends' list must have already cooked it or baked it, and of course, posted a picture of it. And, why not? To curb the spread of coronavirus restaurants and pubs are shut in many cities, most of us have also voluntarily stopped ordering takeouts, and our office managements have asked us to work from home — what better time to don the apron and pick up the ladle?

While all this enthusiasm is a great way to cope with the obvious gloom that the spreading coronavirus has cast in all our lives, nutritionists believe that it is not enough to eat home-cooked meals to build up a good immune system to combat the deadly virus. The meals we eat go a long way in creating a line of defence against Covid-19. There is currently no vaccination for the virus and the degree to which it can affect an individual depends greatly on that person's immune system. That is why the population above the age of 40 is at a greater risk as immunity tends to deteriorate with age


What Not to Eat

A lot has been said about what one should eat to boost immunity against coronavirus, but it is equally important to know what foods to eliminate from our diet, said Mumbai-based Gut Nutritionist, Janvi Chitalia. "Any processed and packaged food, sugar inducing desserts like pastries, cakes or chocolates, fried dishes, foods with preservatives, carbonated drinks, as well as alcohol are things that should be minimised, or cut off from our diet at this point," said Chitalia.

"These foods instantly bring down our immunity. For instance, if you have sugar in the form of desserts or refined white sugar, our immunity drops by about 60 to 70 per cent in the next two to three hours. This type of sugar intake is just empty calories with no nutritional value," she added.

Chitalia claimed that it may be prudent to take off those dishes from the meals that one would generally go out to eat, or order as take-outs, because they will not help in immunity building at all. However, that doesn't mean one should stop making interesting dishes (and posting their photos on Instagram) but all they have to do is opt for healthy alternatives.

"For instance, instead of a regular pizza, people can make cauliflower almond crust pizzas or even a simple homemade khakra pizza. They can also make oats kheer or a jaggery ladoo rather than baking cakes. They should look at healthier alternatives," suggested Chitalia.

The Poultry Problem

In India, due to widespread misinformation, many people have stopped eating chicken. The prices of chicken have dropped by 60 per cent in March, despite poultry being one of the primary sources of Vitamin B6, as well as protein, which are both required to boost immunity.

"We have no research or evidence till date to corroborate that cooked meat will harm in any way, or transmit coronavirus," said Vandita Jain, Delhi-based Nutritionist and an Assistant Professor (Guest Faculty) at the Delhi University, where she teaches food technology and nutrition.

" Also, the general principle, irrespective of whether or not there is a virus scare doing rounds is to not have raw meat or any raw animal product. This is more of a safety guideline to avoid cross-contamination because we are not aware of what levels of hygiene our food handlers are observing," said Jain.

"Because many people have stopped eating chicken, it is important for them to know that if they were dependent on meat diets until now, they are definitely compromising on their protein intake and, in turn, hurting their immunity. If that is the case, they should take quick actions to supplement their protein intakes," she added.

Chitalia agreed with Jain and stated, "If someone is constantly afraid of eating meat, then his/her body will not digest it properly anyway. It is important to eat in the right state of mind, so if it bothers them (although there is no reason to be bothered), they might look at the vegetarian options. Anything from pulses and legumes can work, and people who want to stick to vegan sources can have almond and coconut milk for protein. Nuts and seeds are also a great source of protein," she said.

Building Blocks of Immunity

Right now we need enhanced immunity, not just optimal, but a little over suboptimal immunity, and therefore eating right is absolutely crucial to building immunity, pointed out Chitalia.

"Vitamin C, Vitamin B6 and Vitamin E are all essential immunity boosters, but Vitamin C is definitely the primary one," said Jain.

"According to Indian food composition table by the National Institute of Nutrition, Vitamin C can be found in sweet lime (mosambi), orange pulp, lemon juice, ripe papaya, guava (both pink and white), as well as gooseberry (amla). The general notion that whatever is citrus would only have vitamin C is misguided because foods like strawberries, bell pepper, capsicum, bathua (Chenopodium), and mustard are also important sources of Vitamin C." added Jain. Vitamin B6 is majorly found in poultry as well as whole grains, which are also potent immunity boosters.

"Instead of rice, it is better to opt for whole grains like nachni and bajra to boost immunity," said Chitalia."Rice breaks down simply to sugar because it is starch and therefore, it carries a lot more sugar, than fibre. Whole grains, on the other hand, are highly fortified in iron, calcium, minerals as well as selenium and zinc, which are important micronutrients that can boost immunity," she added.

Pumpkin seeds, nuts such as walnuts, almonds as well as green leafy vegetables are also good sources of zinc, while two brazil nuts alone can supplement the entire intake of selenium in our bodies, pointed out Chitalia.

"If someone is particularly vulnerable, or has very low immunity, perhaps they should think about taking supplements. Things such as multivitamins are easily available and definitely helpful," said Jain. Other supplements that are good to have are Vitamin B12, as well as D3, pointed out Chitalia.

Importance of Gut Immunity

"75 per cent of our immunity lies in our large intestines. So, anything from our moods to metabolisms, to emotions and hormones are controlled by the gut," said Chitalia, who is a gut nutritionist.

If our stomachs are not clear, that too lowers the immunity. A great way to address this problem is to use spices that are readily available at home. "For instance, half a teaspoon of jeera (cumin), a pinch of ajwain (bishop's weed, or carom), and hing ( asafoetida ), along with half a teaspoon of sauf (fennel), in warm water is an effective way to keep the motions going, and ensuring gut immunity,” said Chitalia.

"Probiotics are also important for immunity. Since we generally tend to eat out nowadays, most of us have altered our microbiome, which means that the balance of good bacteria is lesser than the bad bacteria, and that's why our immunity grows low. So eating curd, yoghurt can help because they have probiotics." she added.

People who cannot tolerate lactose, can eat fermented vegetables, or make fermented pickles at home. That's an easy way to have food with live bacteria (probiotics). If people want to make kimchi or cabbage kombucha at home, those are doable options as well.

Immunity for All?

While we can afford to spend on the right kind of food, not everyone around us has that kind of privilege. Despite our social distancing, people who are perhaps regularly frequenting you home are our cooks or house helps, and they are at a greater risk of contracting the virus because their immunity is generally low.

So, you can not only share certain foods that are immunity boosters to help them stay healthy, but also teach them to eat a few things that aren't particularly expensive, but great for building immunity.

"Simple things that are available in every Indian kitchen can help in a big way in building immunity. Turmeric, black pepper, neem leaves, cinnamon can help in boosting immunity. Turmeric milk can also help in strength building. It is also good to have garlic because it has healthy anti-microbial properties." said Jain.

"Of course kitchen herbs are a good source of immunity and are also very affordable like ginger or tulsi leaves which many people have easy access to, because many households have tulsi plants," pointed out Jain.

Keep Calm and Gain Immunity

A big part of building immunity is to avoid stress at all cost. At a time when so many people are bring affected by the deadly virus, it is important to remember not to panic. "If you want to know how to eat healthily and build immunity, instead of heeding to rumours, you should know the correct sources from which you can gather information," said Jain.

"World Health Organisation (WHO), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad and Nutrition Society of India are all trustworthy sources. If these institutions are quoted as sources, then chances of the information being true are obviously greater," she added.

"Stress and lack of sleep are the most common factors for weak immunity. We need to tackle it carefully, without panicking about the current situation. Lack of sleep is obviously closely related to immunity because if you are not sleeping well, you are directly creating stress and tension and weaning off our immunity. So sleeping well is a must," said Jain.

Meditation is also a great way to build resilience, said Chitalia. "Even five minutes of meditation can help in calming down the body. Diaphragmatic breathing can also be a useful tool to help people sleep better." For stress release, one can also opt for exercises like yoga, and find creative outlets like journaling to cope with the situation better.

How Quickly Can You Acquire Immunity?

The most amazing thing about our bodies is that they are very adaptive. When you start eliminating bad food, it takes about two to four days for our gut microbiome to alter, said Chitalia.

"The moment you start eating right you will start getting better than what you were when you were eating unhealthy food, or food that were not providing our bodies with the right nutrients. How long it will take to build up a solid immune system depends on various factors like age group, digestive conditions, a pre-existing illness like diabetes, etc. But, building up immunity is our only chance to have a clear line of defence ready so that in case you contract the virus, you can fight it better." she added.

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