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Nutrition

Immunity: how to eat in the time of Covid-19

January 6th 2021 / Rob Hobson / 0 comment

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The NIMBLE diet takes all that we've learned from the pandemic to help keep our body nourished and resilient and maintain a healthy weight – all on a budget. Its creator nutritionist Rob Hobson explains

As another national lockdown hits, we are yet again held to ransom by Covid-19. I personally couldn’t be any more frustrated – I contracted the disease over Christmas, luckily not seriously, and had just finished my quarantine on the day the news broke. Now England's chief medical office Chris Whitty has warned that measures will likely continue into next winter.

The global pandemic of 2020 not only gave us a disease that we are still fighting to contain but created ripple effects on every aspect of our lives. We’ve never felt more like things are out of our control, with panic buying, uncertainty over our income, furlough, Brexit, working from home and access to everything from food to friends restricted we have all had to adapt to a new way of living. And it’s had a major influence on what and how we choose to eat and our waistlines. With a million cases of Covid19 in England alone, the key question is how can we support our immunity as well our mental and physical resilience and keep a healthy distance from the snack jar?

Lockdown 2020: did you get fitter or fatter?

During the first lockdown, many of us got much fitter as we made our health a priority and dedicated time to online fitness classes, running and eating well. However, data from the Covid Symptoms Survey from 1.6 million users of its app showed that the average weight of the nation increased between 1.6 and 6.6 pounds. The main reasons were snacking (35 per cent), reduced physical activity (34 per cent), increased alcohol consumption (27 per cent) and a less healthy diet (19 per cent).

We've become a nation of snackers

Snacking has definitely become something we do more often thanks to boredom, anxiety and sheer proximity to the fridge as we spend more time at home. In the initial stages of the pandemic, two-thirds of Brits said they snacked at least once a day, according to a report by Mintel, and it’s a trend which is predicted to rise as the stay-at-home message continues. On the plus side, 40 per cent of us sought out healthy snacks all or most of the time and other findings also showed that we took more of an interest in healthy eating and that the mood-boosting effects of snacks became more relevant. While this is a good thing it’s still worth remembering that no matter how healthy your choice of snack is, if you’re not moving as much then they have the potential to add unnecessary calories to your diet which can still contribute to weight gain.

The importance of immunity

Immunity has become a hot topic, and we can see it the unprecedented increase in the sales of supplements. According to Mintel 66 per cent of Brits believe that eating more vitamin C helps to support their immune system and 37 per cent said that the pandemic prompted them to add more nutrients to their diet to support their immune system. Sales of vitamin C and other supplements such as zinc which are associated with immunity soared. The biggest seller is vitamin D which gained huge popularity with research findings linking it with better survival rates for Covid19 as well as the recommendation by the government for all of us to supplement with it during lockdown.

How our eating habits changed in the time of Covid

We’ve become better at cooking from scratch, freezing foods, using up leftovers, exploring new foods, batch cooking and an increase in shopping online, as shown by a You Gov poll. We explored ways to cook on a budget and make the most of store cupboard foods (Mintel reported a 17 per cent increase in tinned food consumption since the start of the pandemic) make banana bread, and for the very bored, our own sourdough. There’s a growing interest in local food and sustainability and the Soil Association reports increased interest in growing our own veg and home baking.

We’re taking a greater interest in the positive impact what we eat has on our health, our wallets and the environment. These findings all tell us that in light of all the uncertainty one of the things we can control and want to control is our health and wellbeing and this includes diet. What is the best way to eat in a pandemic? Read on…

Why we're eating NIMBLE in 2021

The last thing many of us need right now is a punishing regime to add to our stress levels, but there are ways to eat well in a pandemic. Using what we have learned from 2020, I’m inviting you to eat NIMBLE. It’s an easy and powerful reminder of how to eat for health and it stands Nutrients, Immunity, Mind, Budget, Local and Eating Routine. These six simple interrelated areas of health can be used as an overarching approach to eating well, maintaining a healthy weight and building resilience in 2021.

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N is for Nutrients

Nutrient-dense food is all about getting the biggest health bang for your buck. The best way to approach this is by incorporating more wholefoods in your diet, including eating more plants. Interestingly, during the first wave of the pandemic, a third more people decided to go vegan according to the non-profit organisation Veganuary. But you don’t need to adopt this way of eating to max your nutrient-dense foods.

How to make your diet more nutrient-dense?

1. Eat 400g veg a day

Only 30 per cent of Brits eat five-a-day so try to include a wide range of colourful and seasonal vegetables in your daily diet. It’s not difficult; think of it in terms of weight rather than a number. The target of 400g per day – the weight of a large can of baked beans –­ can easily be met if you include dishes such as soups, stews, casseroles and stir-fries into your diet. Make the most of frozen vegetables to help such as adding peas to curries or mixed vegetables to soups and stews.

2. Make tinned beans your friend

Beans, pulses and lentils are highly nutritious, full of fibre and really easy to add to any dish and can also be used to create healthy snacks such as dips. Forget dried varieties and the bother of soaking and cooking - stock up on tinned food such as mixed beans, tomatoes, chickpeas etc.

3. Pimp every dish with dried herbs and spices

Dried herbs and spices are also a great way to boost the nutrient density of dishes as they are rich in minerals such as iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium as well as anti-inflammatory compounds such as curcumin found in turmeric. You can always add some sort of dried spice or herb to a dish such as turmeric to scrambled eggs, dried oregano to Bolognese/chill, ground cinnamon to casseroles and tagines or garam masala to curries. Spices can also be added to dressings and marinades and those that work well include ground cumin and coriander. Sweet spices such as ground cinnamon also work well on porridge or yoghurt especially when combined with dried fruits.

4. Use nuts and seeds for sprinkles and thickeners

Nuts and seeds are also a great option so keep them to hand as they can be used to top breakfast dishes (yoghurt, porridge) and sprinkled over most other savoury dishes. My top tip here is to keep them in jars on your kitchen worktop as a reminder to use them. You can batch-cook toasted nut and seed mixes flavoured with spices or soy sauce which are great on salads. I often use crushed nuts such as cashews to thicken curries and blending them with a little water in a food processor makes a great nutritious vegan white sauce.

5. Top up with supplements

While food should always come first, not all of us eat a balanced diet all of the time so you might want to consider a supplement, particularly vegans. A simple multivitamin and mineral such as Healthspan MultiVitality Gold (£10.95 for 180 tablets) is a cost-effective way to help ensure your nutrient intake. Everyone should be taking vitamin D (vegan versions are now widely available) and if you’re vegan, remember B12 and iron too.

MORE GLOSS: Best supplements for vegans

I is for Immunity

We have all become more interested in ways to support our immunity and epidemiological research clearly shows that people with a poor diet are more likely to fall sick. The concept of ‘boosting’ your immunity is a misnomer. Our immune system is a highly complex system requiring balance and harmony rather than turbo-charging. However, there are key nutrients that play a key role in supporting its function.

Best foods to eat for immune health

These nutrients help support the immune system in different ways including the synthesis and function of immune cells, antibacterial protection and maintenance of mucosal cells (such as the lining of the nose) which act as a first line of defence against infection. Some of these nutrients also play a role in fighting inflammation which can occur when the immune system is challenged by illness, long term poor lifestyle choices and being overweight. Make these part of your weekly shop:

Selenium: Brazil nuts, salmon, tofu, mushrooms, wholemeal pasta.

Zinc: turkey, lean red meat, nuts, seeds, eggs.

Vitamin C: sweet peppers, broccoli, citrus fruits, kiwi fruit, potatoes

Iron: lean red meat, dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, oats

Vitamin A: orange peppers, mango, carrots, oily fish, liver.

Omega 3s: found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, pilchards)

Vitamin D: eggs, red meat, liver, oily fish, mushrooms (especially if left in sunlight), fortified milks and cereals

Antioxidants: compounds such as polyphenols which include the colourful pigments in foods such as anthocyanins found in blue or purple fruits and vegetables. In other words, eat the rainbow, but especially the purple bit.

Your gut supports your immune health

Your microbiota - the bugs found in and on the body, mainly in the gut – is in league with your immune system and has evolved to maintain a symbiotic relationship with our highly diverse and evolving microbes. This alliance allows us to respond to pathogens to stop them from harming us. Overuse of antibiotics, poor diet and increased stress all have the potential to reduce the diversity and resilience of the microbiota, possibly making us more susceptible to disease.

The highest concentration of bacteria is found in the gut, our small intestine, and it’s vital we look after it to keep our immune response balanced and strong.

3 essentials for gut health

Here we need to do three simple things, eat more fibre generally, eat specific types of fibre called prebiotics, which our gut bugs feed on, and thirdly eat more fermented (probiotic) foods to support a diverse gut bug population, as a healthy microbiome is a diverse one.

1. Keep things moving with fibre

Fibre helps food move through your system, keeping everything flowing but currently, only four per cent of women and 11 per cent of men meet the daily target of 30g per day. Boost your intake by including more wholegrain foods, nuts, seeds and legumes.

Legumes (beans, pulses such as chickpeas and lentils) are the richest source of fibre and including just a single 100g serving (that’s a mere handful) in your daily diet offers a third of your daily recommended intake. Switching from white to brown starchy carbs such as rice, pasta and bread can also help to increase your intake and keeping those nuts and seeds handy to sprinkle on meals is also a good fibre booster.

2. Feed your gut bugs the prebiotic fibre they love

Certain types known as prebiotics are particularly loved by our gut bugs, which feed on them. In our lower digestive tract, they are broken down by bacteria in a process called fermentation. Prebiotic foods include apples, artichokes, asparagus, bananas, barley, onions, leeks garlic, beans and oats. Including these foods in your diet is a good way to nurture your gut microbiota.

3. Increase your bug count with fermented foods

You should also include plenty of probiotic foods in your diet such as live yoghurt and fermented foods such as kefir, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut as they all contain strains of bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium which can help to maintain the integrity and diversity of your microbiota.

If you do get hit with an infection that requires antibiotics, then extra support for your gut with a probiotic supplement such as Healthspan Super20 Pro (£16.95 for 60 capsules) can help you to readdress the diversity of your microbiome.

M is for Mind

We've all seen how mental health issues are on the rise due to the uncertainty and isolation that the pandemic poses. There’s a two-way relationship between food and mood: how we feel influences the food choices we make, while certain food can impact how we feel. We all know that low mood can cause comfort over-eating which may contribute to weight gain and exacerbate poor self-esteem or negative feelings such as guilt. It can also lead to erratic eating behaviours such as skipping meals. This can affect your overall nutrient intake and lead to blood sugar imbalances that cause mood swings.

1. Plan your plate to keep your mood stable

Keeping your blood sugar as stable as you can, is important to avoid the lows that can derail your healthy eating habits and lead to snacking, food cravings and binge eating. An easy way to remember is plan your plate around three things: protein, high fibre foods and healthy fats, all of which will keep you fuller for longer. If you crave sweet foods after a meal, then this is a sign your plate is out of balance.

What does a well-planned plate look like?

Good breakfast options include boiled eggs on wholegrain toast or porridge or yoghurt topped with fruit, nuts and seeds.

Lunch options include bean or lentils-based soups, or protein-based salads made with ingredients such as lean meats, oily fish, tofu, beans, sweet potato, avocado, quinoa, nuts and seeds.

Supper options include one-pot meals such as stews, casseroles and curries, stir-fries or a simple meat/fish/tofu and two veg combo.

2. Swap out the sugary stuff

We all know that sugar provides a temporary high but ultimately it does your mood no favours. What's more, foods high in sugar normally have a low nutrient density (ie they lacking in essential nutrients) so you'll be getting less of those gut and immune-boosting goodies from your daily calories. Sweet snacks can play havoc with blood sugar levels leading to energy slumps, mood swings and hunger pangs. Emotionally, comfort eating can lead to feelings of guilt. It’s also really easy to overeat sugary foods as they not very satiating as well as addictive.

Easier said than done, and certainly upping your protein and fibre will help, but swap sugary snacks for fresh and dried fruits which have less impact on blood sugar levels. Try reducing the sugar in your drinks if this is a thing for you and think about replacing with sweet spices such as a teaspoon of cinnamon in your coffee. While they may be shunned by some people, low-calorie hot chocolate drinks can give you a sweet hit without the sugar.

3. Find new pick-me-ups

If you reach for sugar as an energy boost, think about what else might give you the same hit. Really excite your taste buds with invigorating flavours – I love to make a super spicy tea using fresh lemon slices, turmeric and a heavy dose of ground ginger.

You could also explore collagen powder in tea or coffee, it’s tasteless, has some protein and is good for the gut and skin. My favourite energy tea is ginseng. Homemade chai and hot chocolate drinks are also super nutritious and lower in sugar and you can make these using cashew nut milk alongside ingredients such as ground spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric, cardamom), raw cacao and coconut oil. There are also loads of really interesting 'functional' drinks on the market which are low in sugar such as water kefir (you can also make this at home) and kombucha.

4. Keep up your energy levels with magnesium and iron

Low levels of magnesium (found in nuts, seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit) can impact on energy levels as this nutrient is involved in converting food into energy. When we’re stressed we use up our magnesium levels more. Not getting enough can result in anxiety and insomnia. Try a magnesium bath with Epsom salts.

Low iron intake is common in women and this can increase the risk of anaemia which cause chronic tiredness, fatigue and low mood. Boost your intake with foods such as lean red meat, legumes, dried fruits and nuts.

5. Eat to sleep better

Sleep has become a major issue impacting on our mental health. The odd night staring at the ceiling counting sheep is easy enough to deal with but chronic sleep deprivation can seriously take its toll (as a reformed insomniac, I know). Not getting enough sleep affects concentration, creativity, insight, memory, emotions and relationships as well as our self-esteem as we walk around looking pale, heavy-lidded and lacking in vitality. Research is also beginning to suggest that chronic sleep deprivation may impact on weight gain as it impacts on the hormones ghrelin and leptin which regulate our hunger and satiety as well as the amount of insulin we release after eating which may lead to us storing more fat.

Diet can play a useful role when it comes to addressing your sleep hygiene. Avoid caffeine in the afternoons and limit your alcohol intake as this can disrupt certain stages of your sleep cycle. Try to plan your evening meal around the amino acid tryptophan found in foods such as oats, tofu, turkey, oily fish and legumes. This amino acid contributes to the production of melatonin which helps to regulate the sleep cycle. Partner these foods with a carbohydrate to help with the uptake of tryptophan into the brain.

B is for Budget

While it might take a bit more planning there is no reason you can’t eat well on a small budget and this is something many of us have learned during the pandemic. Here’s how

1. Weekly meal planning is your friend. Draw up your shopping list for the week so you then buy only what you need.

2. Batch cooking is a great way to make your food go further. Make double or triple quantities or set time aside, say Saturday afternoons, to cook up one-pot dishes to freeze.

3. Stock up on canned foods such as fish, legumes, sweetcorn, chopped tomatoes, coconut milk and fruits (these are great in smoothies).

4. Stock up on frozen fruit and veg such as peas, mixed vegetables, spinach, soya beans, Quorn and fish fillets and berries. The vegetables can be added to any dish and are a good source of nutrients, which are preserved in the flash-freezing process. Soya beans, Quorn and fish are a good source of protein.

5. Bulk out meat and fish dishes with beans and pulses to make them go further. Replace half the amount of meat in dishes such as curries, Bolognese or chilli with beans or lentils. You can replace half the fish in a pie, curry or fishcake with lentils, frozen soya beans or peas. You can also thicken sauces for these dishes with ground nuts or mashed beans such as cannellini, red kidney or butter beans.

6. Buy a whole chicken instead of fillets. It often works out cheaper and you can also make up stock from the bones as a base for homemade soups and other one-pot dishes such as risotto.

7. Remember eggs - eggs are a highly nutritious cheap, local food which can be used in so many ways to create quick meal options such as omelettes, frittatas or fried rice.

L is for Local

The pandemic, not to mention Brexit, has made us much more aware of where our food has come from. According to research by the UK sustainability charity Hubbub 57 per cent of Brits value food more now than they did pre-pandemic. What’s more, shopping local at greengrocers and farmers' markets helps us support small businesses and avoid crowds.

Choosing local means you are more likely to eat seasonally as neighbourhood sellers change their offering to suit local supplies. It helps to protect both the environment and saves you money, packaging and a possible car trip to the supermarket.

1. Swot up on seasonal food (The Soil Association has an easy list) to help you to plan your meals and recipes across the week.

2. Get a weekly food box deliveries from local farmers - there are lots to choose from and they make it easy to east seasonally. Try Farmdrop or the Organic Delivery Company which are both good value.

3. Love your freezer. Extend the food seasons by freezing raw fruits and vegetables when they are seasonally abundant and cheap to use across the year.

4. Buy local meat and fish. Choose quality over quantity by opting for locally sourced meat and fish from your local butcher and fishmonger. Sometimes, it can be cheaper than in supermarkets. You can bulk out meat and fish-based dishes with plant proteins such as beans, pulses and lentils, as above.

E is for Eating Routine

Most of us have been conditioned to eat three meals at set times during the day which works for some but not for others. The working day is anything but normal for many of us during a pandemic, and for people who work freelance or shifts. Working from home has made time more elastic, we don’t have the same markers for mealtimes that we do say for the office lunch and so sticking to a routine can be tricky. Our bodies thrive on routine. We are all creatures of habit and when we have a routine as it helps us to feel grounded which has a positive impact on our day-to-day wellbeing. It also helps us stick to our good intentions. In these uncertain times, we can rest assured that the one thing we are able to take control of is our diet and establishing a set pattern of eating can help us to navigate our day. Eating regularly also helps to ensure that we receive all the necessary nutrients across the day to keep us nourished, healthy and feeling satiated.

Find your regular eating routine and stick to it

How you choose to eat should be driven by your appetite, but work schedules and health goals play a role too. Find a pattern of eating that works for you and stick to it, as opposed to eating erratically by skipping meals and relying on snacks and grazing. Adopting a set pattern of eating is also a good way to structure your day if you’re working from home.

How this looks is up to you. Some people are fine with three square meals a day and no snacking. Others prefer snacks during the day, taking a little-and-often approach. If this is you, then reduce the size of your main meals to accommodate for the calories from snacks.

Try intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating is a popular and effective way to manage weight. In my view, the easiest way to do it is the 16:8, which involves eating within an eight-hour window during the day and consuming only water, or milk-free tea and coffee outside of that. This fasting technique may mean skipping breakfast while eating later into the day or relying on a very early supper if you know you love breakfast mid-morning.

MORE GLOSS: from 5:2 to 16:8, which fasting diets do what?

Put your food or fork down between bites

Set time aside to eat uninterrupted rather than eating while you’re working, walking or watching. You should chew your food properly (your gut will thank you) and put your cutlery or sandwich down between mouthfuls to and give your brain the time it needs to acknowledge that you’re full. Eating this way has been shown to help people to manage their weight.

Be realistic about snacks

We live in a snacking culture and this has become even more apparent during the pandemic as people work from home. There is nothing wrong with snacking, but it should be mindful and healthy while fitting into your daily energy requirements. And if you’re moving less in lockdown, you’ll need fewer calories. (Sorry, trips to the fridge don’t count).

It all goes back to planning and making sure you have healthy snacks in stock fresh fruit, dried fruits, nuts, seeds, yoghurt, dips and even leftovers. These all contribute to your overall nutrient intake and help to keep blood sugar levels stable. Keeping the less healthy snacks out of the house. Simply don’t buy them. Just remember portion size though as even healthy snacks can lead you to pile on the pounds.

The basics of healthy eating haven’t really changed over the decades but how you choose to apply them is a matter of personal preference. Using the six key concepts of NIMBLE is a useful way to help you address the issues that have arisen out of the global pandemic so you can stride into 2021 in the best health possible.

The NIMBLE kitchen shopping list

Fresh food

Seasonal fruit and veggies. This month (January) seasonal eating include beetroot, Brussels sprouts, celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke, kale, leeks, parsnips, swede, blood oranges, rhubarb, apples and pears. Eat the rainbow

Tins

Tinned beans, pulses, lentils, sweetcorn.

Tinned fruit (in juice)

Tinned fish (tuna, salmon, sardines, pilchards, mackerel)

Dried food

Dried fruit (apple rings, unsulphered apricots, raisins) nuts and seeds

Whole grains: oats, brown rice, barley, spelt, rye bread

Gluten-free ‘pseudo-grains’: quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat

All dried herbs and spices (turmeric, ginger cinnamon, oregano, mixed spice, mixed herbs)

Nutritional yeast (these flakes give good umami flavour, rich in vegan B12, and taste a bit like parmesan)

Frozen Food

Peas, mixed vegetables, soya beans, berries, frozen fish

Healthy fats and protein

Lean meats, white fish, oily fish, tofu, Quorn

Extra virgin olive oil

Coconut oil

Natural yoghurt

Nuts and seeds

Feta and halloumi cheese

Hummus

Supplements

Multivitamin and mineral

Vitamin D3

Probiotics

Drinks

Herbal teas (liquorice, ginseng, herbal chai are good for a 4pm slump)

Water kefir e.g. Purearth, Agua de Madre

Kombucha

Fortified plant milks (oat, soy, almond etc)

Fermented foods

Natural yoghurt

Kimchi

Kombucha

Kefir or water kefir

Apple cider vinegar

Rob Hobson is a registered nutritionist and Head of Nutrition for wellbeing brand Healthspan.

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