The world’s public health professionals are unanimous: a strong immune system helps us to stay healthy by increasing our resistance to viruses and infections. Experts from the World Health Organization say that a healthy diet and physical activity are the most important factors in boosting the immune system. The quarantine and self-isolation announced during the COVID-19 virus pandemic has changed our lives and our eating habits. Professor Rimantas Stukas, head of the Department of Public Health of the Institute of Health Sciences of the Faculty of Medicine at Vilnius University, urges everyone not to succumb to temptation and not to forget that a healthy lifestyle should be cultivated even in the face of a pandemic.
“During this difficult period, the most important principles of a healthy lifestyle should not be forgotten,” Prof Stukas said. “With the closure of food service establishments and in accordance with quarantine rules (one of which is going to the grocers’ or supermarkets as rarely as possible or buying food online), it has become especially important to plan your menu carefully and choose the healthiest food.”
According to the professor, we now have more opportunities to cook various healthy meals at home and to eat only fresh, freshly prepared food: “So let’s make the most of this time, not only by trying out new or classic recipes, but also by studying valuable healthy eating information.”
Prof Stukas recommends regularly checking the websites of the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health of Lithuania, where the main principles for a healthy life that are also relevant during quarantine are published. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts from the WHO Regional Office for Europe have developed specific recommendations on food and nutrition and physical activity during quarantine self-isolation: what to choose and how to eat healthily and to exercise. These are helpful tips for individuals or families looking to strengthen their immune system while at home.
According to the professor, we must learn how to buy, store and consume food safely and rationally; how to limit the consumption of salt, sugar and fat; and how to choose foods that are nutritious, affordable and accessible as well as have a long shelf life. During quarantine, due to recommendations to stay at home, people, even though they may have fewer choices, can continue to eat a reasonable amount of healthy, delicious food and drink plenty of water.
Nutrition is not the only factor that helps us to stay healthy in self-isolation during quarantine; it is also important to stay physically active. Experts from the WHO Regional Office for Europe have developed the latest physical activity guidelines during a pandemic. The website of the Lithuanian Ministry of Health has also published “Tips on How to Be Physically Active During Self-isolation”, guidelines that provide interesting examples of physical exercises.
“Adhering to a very low-calorie diet isn’t recommended during a pandemic,” Prof Stukas said. “If the body doesn’t get all the necessary substances needed to ensure the functioning of organs and systems, the immune system may be weakened and we will become more vulnerable.”
According to the professor, it is also important not to overeat. Because we tend to be less physically active when staying at home, our diet must match our energy consumption: “It is necessary to reduce sizes of portions and limit snacks”.
What immune-boosting products, in the opinion of professionals, are necessary to include in your diet every day during quarantine? In particular, products that are sources of vitamin C are important: sauerkraut and potatoes (by steaming them and preferably eating them immediately after cooking): “We should eat more of a variety of vegetables and fruits. Although the vitamins stored during the winter in fruits and vegetables have decreased somewhat, there are still important vitamins for supporting the activity of the immune system,” the professor stated.
For breakfast, a variety of whole grain or cereal porridge is recommended. They contain B vitamins, high molecular weight carbohydrates that provide energy and fibre. It is also necessary to include other foods rich in fibre, such as root vegetables and various seeds in your diet (pumpkin, sunflower, quinoa, etc.): “Fibre is extremely good for intestinal bacteria and the activity of the human immune system is highly dependent on the activity of good bacteria,” Prof Stukas explained.
We must also ensure that we consume enough protein during quarantine: “One way is to eat hard-boiled eggs. After all, the World Health Organization has recognised egg protein as a protein standard. Protein is needed for the construction and regeneration of cells in our body, especially the cells of the immune system,” the professor said.
Meat is also a great source of wholesome protein. Meat contains amino acids that increase the body’s resistance to diseases. In addition, meat, especially beef, is a source of both iron and vitamin B12, which is necessary for the absorption of iron. Nutritionists advise eating meat with vegetables and not with grains, since grains contain substances that reduce iron absorption. It is also recommended to eat fish and other types of seafood. Such foods are also high in protein, and oily fish contains a lot of polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.
And what about snacks? After all, when we spend a lot of time at home, especially when we feel anxious or stressed, the desire to snack can be overwhelming. Prof Stukas advises us to choose only healthy food whenever we feel the urge to have a snack.
“You can have any type of fruit: apple, pear, banana or orange. Or maybe you would like to have something different? Turnip greens or even turnips would be great,” the professor said.
Nuts are also a healthy snack, but it is advisable to eat no more than 20 units a day, because nuts are an oily, high-calorie food. And what about sweets? People are advised to avoid them, since we tend to be less physically active during quarantine, and it is quite easy to ingest too many calories very quickly.
“And, of course, let’s not forget that water is a source of life and health. We should drink a lot of liquid: up to eight glasses of water a day. This is especially important for older people”, Prof Stukas emphasised. “I sincerely wish everyone excellent health in this challenging period. We should all follow the tips to preserve and strengthen our health. Even in isolation, let’s enjoy the pleasure of a healthy diet and a healthy life, be as physically active as possible, and stay strong both physically and spiritually.”