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BNF tackles myths on nutrition and Covid-19

In response to the confusion surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic and health claims about immunity, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) has addressed some of the common misconceptions around nutrients and vitamins, the immune system, and how this might link to the virus.

“In recent weeks there has been a large volume of unfounded claims around nutrients which can help fend off the coronavirus,” said Sara Stanner, science director at BNF. “Put simply, there are no foods or supplements that can protect you from the virus. But, in these times of crisis and unprecedented change, it is important that we don’t forget to look after ourselves and take care of our health as best we can.

“With so many of us worried and stressed, now is not the time for lectures about healthy eating. But, our diet does help support the immune system to cope with infections and so anything we can do to try and eat well can help us get all the nutrients our bodies need. Food is also really important source of enjoyment – something we all need at the moment.”

NO FOODS OR SUPPLEMENTS CAN PREVENT CORONAVIRUS

Eating a well-balanced diet is important for supporting the normal functioning of the immune system, and many nutrients influence the body’s ability to fight infection. But, it is critical to address that there is no individual nutrient, food or supplement that will boost immunity, or stop us getting highly infectious viruses, like Covid-19.

Each micronutrient plays a different role in the immune system – don’t make a hero of just one

The immune system is a complex network of cells and chemical compounds that help defend the body against infections, and a number of different nutrients are involved in supporting our immune system to work normally. So, while vitamin C and zinc supplements may be flying off the shelves, it’s important to remember the other key players in the immune system, and that you can find these nutrients in a wide range of foods.

Vitamin A: Playing an important role in supporting T Cells, which are a type of white blood cell that help identify pathogens (like viruses or infectious bacteria), vitamin A in can be found in all kinds of foods such as: liver, whole milk and cheese, which contain retinol – preformed vitamin A, and dark green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured fruits and vegetables, which contain beta carotenes that the body converts to vitamin A.

Vitamin B6: This vitamin helps produce new immune cells, helps process antibodies and helps immune cells to communicate. It’s found in poultry and fish, fortified breakfast cereals, egg yolk, yeast extract, soya beans, sesame seeds and some fruit and vegetables, like banana, avocado and green pepper.

Vitamin B12: Found in animal products like meat, fish, milk, cheese and eggs, as well as fortified breakfast cereals, this vitamin is important for producing new immune cells.

Vitamin C: Vitamin C helps immune cells attack pathogens, enables us to clear away old immune cells from the site of infection, and also helps maintain the skin, our external barrier to infection. Citrus fruits, green vegetables, peppers and tomatoes are all sources of vitamin C.

Copper: Often forgotten when thinking about nutrients, copper helps protect and fuel immune cells. It can be found in a range of sources, including: bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, rice, quinoa, meat, fish and shellfish, pulses, avocado, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

Vitamin D: A low status of vitamin D is associated with reduced immune response. Our main source of vitamin D is from sunlight on our skin but food sources include oily fish, eggs and fortified cereals. As it is often difficult to get enough vitamin D from the diet, we are all advised to consider taking a supplement of 10 micrograms a day from October to March, and all year round if we aren’t often outdoors. This is something many of us may need to consider if mainly staying at home and particularly when self-isolating.

Folate: Found in green vegetables, pulses, oranges, berries, nuts and seeds, cheese, bread and fortified breakfast cereals, folate also plays an important role in producing new immune cells.

Iron: Helping to maintain the health of immune cells, iron has a variety of meat and vegetable sources. Heme-iron, which comes from meat sources of iron, like offal, red meat and fish, is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron, which is found in plant-based sources.

Selenium: This nutrient is vital for producing new immune cells and can help to strengthen response to infection. It’s found in nuts and seeds, particularly Brazil nuts, cashews and sunflower seeds, as well as eggs, offal poultry, fish and shellfish.

Zinc: Found in a wide range of sources from meat and poultry, to cheese and wholegrains, zinc helps produce new immune cells, helps develops ‘natural killer cells’ that help to fight off viruses, and supports communication between immune cells.

SUPPLEMENTS CANNOT SUBSTITUTE A HEALTHY DIET

The wide range of nutrients which play a role in immunity demonstrates the importance of a balanced and varied diet for maintaining a healthy immune system.

When it comes to vitamin and mineral supplements, although it is tempting to stock up, there is no evidence that these can prevent or treat viral infections. There is some evidence that vitamin C may reduce the duration and severity of the common cold, but this is caused by a completely different type of virus to Covid-19. There has also been some research into the effect of zinc supplements on the common cold, but, again, we don’t know that supplements would have any benefit to protect against coronavirus.

If you are worried that your diet will not provide you with all the nutrients you need, then you could consider a supplement – a multivitamin and mineral supplement may be the best approach so that you get a range of vitamins and minerals. However, it is always best to try to get as many nutrients as possible through food sources, as a healthy diet can provide a range of natural compounds that you will not find in supplements.

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