Food for coronavirus: Take the stress out of eating
With the Coronavirus pandemic taking over the headlines, social media is taken over by 'immune-boosting' detoxes, celery juices and magic pills to fight off COVID-19. Let’s face it, things are strange at the moment with heightened anxiety and stress for many. Of course, we want to do everything we can to look after ourselves and our families but how helpful is your social media medical advice? The truth is, these 'health' products are not going to help you fight off Coronavirus. In fact, trying to follow diet plans or include special health foods can be outright dangerous. So, how do you know if your focus on health and nutrition is going too far?
The impact of stress
Let’s take a step back and consider your health as a whole. Sure, nutrition is important but equally as important is managing your stress. Stress releases cortisol, a hormone that triggers activation of the immune system. This can be helpful in the short term but if the stress is prolonged it can lead to a long term activation of the immune system which impairs its ability to respond to an infection when needed.
If the thought of trying to get your hands on manuka honey, running out of gummy vitamins or eating '5 veg a day' is feeling stressful, it’s probably not helpful.
How is your relationship with food? Is it flexible and calm or does it feel rigid and trigger anxiety? Do you try to restrict foods only to experience intense cravings? Are your food rules becoming more difficult with the current situation? Even just a perceived failure to follow food rules when dieting is shown to increase cortisol levels. In short, counting calories and controlling what you eat is stressful and not immune boosting.
Sure, nutrition is powerful but it’s not magical. There’s no specific food you should be eating, there isn’t a special nutrient that is more important than others and you cannot 'boost' your immune system in times of need with high doses of antioxidants. In fact, there are many dangerous rumours about magical cures circulating across social media. So then, what can you do to look after yourself?
The importance of the feared C-word (not Coronavirus, the other one - 'calories')
The immune system needs energy (yes, that means calories) to support the production of pathogen fighting cells. Actually, the amount of energy needed during an infection increases. Focusing on low calorie 'immune-boosting' foods or cleansing your body with detoxes can limit the energy you are giving to your body and as such, be detrimental to your body’s ability to fight infection. To support your immune system during difficult times, getting enough energy through food is just as important as micronutrients.
Sure, micronutrients are important as well. Nutrients that are beneficial to your immune system such as arginine, zinc, selenium, vitamin E and C among others come from a wide range of foods. From nuts, grains and fish containing selenium, beef, baked beans and dairy for zinc, sunflower oil and spinach with vitamin E, while potatoes and peppers will give you vitamin C. Of course, this list isn’t exhaustive but highlights the wide variety of common foods that support the immune system.
You don’t need special foods to get the nutrients you need and you don’t need to micromanage each nutrient you are taking in. Simply including a wide range of different foods, including those which give you energy is the best way to keep your immune system strong.
Your immune system is not improved by dieting
Going without adequate energy and nutrients impairs your body’s defences for fighting infection. This is common in situations of famine or disease but it is also a side effect of dieting.
If you are restricting particular food groups or overall energy provision, you are risking giving your immune system inadequate energy and range of nutrients to perform at its best. It’s like giving a plant plenty of water but no sunlight for it to produce any energy - no matter how much water you give it, it will not thrive without sunlight too.
Following diets that restrict foods, or food groups, puts you at risk of missing out on important nutrients that are helpful to your body and immune system as well as limiting the energy your body has available to fight infection. Excess amounts of individual nutrients from supplements are no good either. Apart from producing expensive pee as your body excretes it, excess nutrients can fight for absorption with other nutrients and risk a deficiency in another vitamin or mineral.
Sifting through the nonsense
Aside from medical conditions, allergies and intolerances, there is nothing you can eat that will weaken your immune system. Processed food will not suddenly make you less healthy, a fatty meal will not impair your immune function and sugar will simply be used as an energy source. Feeding yourself is better than starving yourself. Comforting yourself is better than adding to your stress - even if you choose food.
What can you do to keep yourself healthy?
As a general thought, if it feels stressful, it’s likely not helpful. Here are four tips for staying healthy when things are difficult:
1. Ditch the rules and simply eat a variety of foods
Focus on eating a variety of foods, rather than focusing on specific 'immune-boosting' foods. Include whole grains, vegetables, fruits, dairy or alternatives and protein sources from animals or plants if you can.
Remember, there’s no 'perfect' food you need to eat and it’s ok to eat a bit differently than usual. If a product is not available, know that it’s ok to go without. You will have access to it again soon. Importantly, make sure to include foods you really enjoy.
2. Listen to your body’s signals
Your body has an innate ability to tell you what it needs. If you are used to following food rules, it is normal to feel out of touch or simply not trust your body. If you can, try to spend a few moments throughout the day calmly tuning in to how your body feels. Look out for signs of hunger, fullness, emotions and stress. If you find yourself using food for comfort or eating larger amounts than you wish, know this is a normal response to stress and fear of restriction. Be kind and allow yourself to explore these emotions and eating behaviours. It’s ok to eat for comfort when there is nothing else available in the moment.
3. Gentle movement
Movement can help keep your immune system healthy but it’s likely that your lifestyle, and perhaps your usual exercise routine, have been affected. The good news, movement does not have to be intense to have a positive impact on your health. Gentle movement such as walking or yoga can have a positive impact on your health and stress levels. There are also online classes you can use if you are stuck inside.
4. Stress management
Managing stress during this time is as important as giving your body nutrition. Dedicate some time to breathe and tune into how you are feeling. Is there anything that is increasing your stress or activities that could be helpful. Do you need to distance yourself from the media and news to tune out from 'Corona-talk'. Or limit social media scrolling to avoid the 'immune-boosting' messaging. Or perhaps meditation, reading, movement, rest or a phone call is what you need.
Above all else, follow the advice of your government, wash your hands often, avoid close contact with others as much as possible and look after your friends and family.
Do you need some gentle support?
If food is causing you stress, you can use this extra downtime to speak with a qualified nutrition professional specialised in a non-diet approach. Non-diet nutrition helps you reduce stress around food and eating, connect with and trust your body’s signals and improve body respect to help you cope during this stressful situation and beyond.
- Childs et al., 2019. Diet and immune function. Nutrients; 11(8), doi: 10.3390/nu11081933. Accessed from: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723551/
- Tomiyama et al., 2010. Low calorie dieting increases cortisol. Psychosom Med; 72(4)357-364. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e3181d9523c.
- Tylka et al., 2014. The Weight-Inclusive versus Weight-Normative Approach to Health: Evaluating the Evidence for Prioritizing Well-Being over Weight Loss. JObesity; Article ID 983495.
- Morey et al., 2015. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Curr Opin Psychol; (5); 13-27. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.03.007. Accessed from: (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4465119/)
- National institute of health (NIH). Dietary supplement fact sheets. Accessed from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/