By becoming more mindful about what you eat to help you build a strong immune system. Picture: File
By becoming more mindful about what you eat to help you build a strong immune system. Picture: File

A healthy immune system is key to fighting viruses

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published May 28, 2020

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As fatality statistics continue to rise, it is becoming more evident that Covid-19 will be with us for quite some time and we need to take care of ourselves. 

When it comes to fighting viruses, everyday precautions such as washing your hands often and avoiding sick people are key. But experts say that boosting your immune system may also give you an edge in staying healthy.

With people being home most of the time, this is also a great opportunity to shift into healthy habits and boost the immune system by cooking nutritious meals together, making healthy snacks and drinks available in the home and being physically active as a family on a daily basis.

Retha Harmse, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) says: “Eating a balanced diet plays an important role in maintaining health and supporting the immune system, as well as all the body’s vital systems.” 

Harmse says: “Everyone would like to minimise their risk of contracting Covid-19, however, there is no simple quick fix to boost our immune system to guarantee that we won’t be infected. 

"Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet, and no specific food or supplement will prevent you contracting Covid-19. Good hygiene practice and social distancing remains the best means of avoiding infection.”

Harvard Health Publishing notes that the idea of boosting your immunity is enticing, but the ability to do so has proved elusive for several reasons. “While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, the elderly are more likely to contract infectious diseases and even more importantly, more likely to die from them. Respiratory infections, influenza, the Covid-19 virus and particularly pneumonia are a leading cause of death in people over 65, worldwide.”

The main purpose of your immune system is to protect your body from viruses and bacteria. Harmse explains that there are many nutrients involved with the normal functioning of the immune system. “This is why maintaining a healthy balanced diet made up of different foods that provide a spectrum of nutrients that include copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B12, C and D is the very best way to support immune function.

‘“Fruit and vegetables in their whole form, rather than being juiced, are rich in fibre and help increase the good bacteria in the gut. Variety is also important, so aim to eat a range of different coloured fruit and vegetables daily to boost your immune system” adds Harmse. 

The Heart Foundation adds that your immune system begins in your gut, all the different bacteria that live there are called the gut-microbiome. When your gut is healthy, it’s full of good bacteria which helps to strengthen your immune system. 

Other immune system boosting foods that help keep your gut microbiome healthy include: Plain, unsweetened yoghurt. Fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut. Legumes and pulses such as beans, lentils and chickpeas. Ginger, garlic and onion. Vitamin C helps to build up the immune system.

“In addition to a healthy balanced diet, a general healthy lifestyle is also important to support your immune system,” says Harmse. “This means not smoking, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep and very importantly, minimizing stress, which is very intense at this time.” 

Here are some lifestyle changes you can add

Enjoy a variety of foods - Although certain foods might be a bit harder to come by, don’t fall in the trap of eating only certain foods. Variety also means including foods from two or more food groups at each meal.

Make starchy foods part of most meals - Choose whole grain, unrefined foods to add more fibre, vitamins and minerals to your diet. Good options to choose are whole-wheat pasta, multigrain provitas or cracker breads, brown rice and bulgur wheat. Combine whole grains with other tasty, nutritious foods in mixed dishes.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit every day - Choose fresh, whole fruit that is naturally longer lasting such as apples, pineapple and citrus fruits.Eat fruits as snacks and desserts. Add sliced fruit or dried fruit to your cereal, muesli or yoghurt.

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