The lessons that COVID-19 taught us about the importance of a healthy diet, exercise and immunity should not be forgotten
The COVID 19 pandemic is a major challenge not just for India, but the world, and we have seen several countries going through different phases of lockdown since last year.
In India, we are seeing the reemergence of COVID, and a steep 2nd wave may force the authorities to resort to stronger measures to contain the spread. Self-quarantine has become the norm not only for the person showing symptoms, but also for immediate family members residing in the same household.
We are already seeing some cities imposing movement restrictions which may lead to dependence on takeaways and thus increased consumption of processed foods which tend to be high on fat, sugar and salt. In some cases, availability and access to fresh foods may be difficult, compromising opportunities for varied and healthier diets.
Health, immunity, nutrition and general well-being have become the new buzz words due to the pandemic, which has also made us relook at what and how much we eat. People have recognized that a long-term commitment is essential to live healthily, and that can be achieved through good nutrition. This trend towards good dietary habits coupled with exercise is here to stay, much like the regular savings through mutual funds or coffee-can investing that many of us in India have embraced over the last couple of decades.
Much like financial planning is dependent on several factors like age, ability to take risks and the understanding of various investment options, nutritional status and dietary intakes are affected by several factors like age, sex, income, lifestyle, concomitant illness and even medications. Our understanding of these factors is the first step towards enjoying healthier and longer lives. We are increasingly aware now that poor dietary choices, or indulging in foods high on salt, sugar and fat over time, can lead to chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity and heart related ailments.
A planned, varied and balanced diet from a young age helps us sets the stage for optimal health, be it developing a resilient immune system or remaining active throughout our life span. The plan should also include what not to do. For instance, panic buying not only leads to overconsumption but also challenges the distribution and supply chain from farm to our plate. The pandemic has nudged us to start looking at what we have in our kitchens more closely and avoid wasting food.
It has also highlighted the importance of specific types of foods and nutrients that improve the immune system. Regular consumption of fresh foods and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts along with an adequate intake of immunonutrients such as zinc, iron, fat soluble Vitamins A, D, E and water soluble B6, 12 & C are essential for supporting and maintaining our body’s defenses.Adequate intake of Protein is also key as it strengthens the immune system in addition to its important role in the creation and maintenance of every cell in our body.
Another trend seems to be an increasing preference for vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, organic and gut-healthy foods as opposed to animal-based foods. More than 80 percent of our immune system is based in the gut, and the food we eat plays a large role in the composition of the gut microbiome, which in turn influences the immune system. Stopping or cutting down on animal-based foods has several benefits including lowering the risks of obesity and heart diseases. Adequate fiber intake contributes to a healthy digestive system and offers early satiety, which helps prevent overeating.
Spending more time at home, enforced or otherwise, means more opportunities to prepare home-cooked meals for the family, to revisit forgotten recipes or trying those recipes which need longer time to cook, and regulating our portions when food is served.
It is therefore important to ensure that we retain some of these healthy habits even after this pandemic has passed. On this World Health Day, let’s pledge to make health and nutrition a priority, even post COVID.
(The author is Head – Health Care Nutrition Science, Danone India. Views expressed are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Outlook Magazine).