Coronavirus (Covid-19) and Nutrition - 17 03 2020

Classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) constitutes an important risk regarding public health. Although there are no foods to prevent or treat the coronavirus alone; it has been proven that a healthy and balanced diet, along with physical activity and a regular sleep pattern strengthens the immune system. As the topic of this article, the concept of balanced diet is assessed within the context of the coronavirus pandemic, and various recommendations catered to healthy individuals have been proposed for our country.

Since the best-known practice against Covid-19 is social isolation where all social interactions are kept at a minimum; many global health organizations recommend that we all stock two weeks’ worth of food and medicine, as a means to cover the potential quarantine procedures. Foods to be stocked at home should be as nutritious as possible, with a long shelf life and high durability. It is important in relation to a balanced diet to choose foods rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, to be able to get over this challenging period as smoothly as possible.

Although not the go-to foods when durable foods are in question, fruits and vegetables should be the consumed sufficiently every day, and for every meal. As per the Healthy Meal Plate proposed on Dietary Guidelines for Turkey, a quarter of your main course plate should be vegetables, whereas another quarter should be whole grains, while the remainder should consist of equal three parts of fruits, high-protein foods (dry legumes, meat, eggs, fish, chicken, fatty seeds etc.) and dairy products (milk, yoghurt, ayran, cheese etc.) (Figure 1). In addition, sufficient water should be consumed, and olive oil should be used in daily nutrition.

In the light of the information presented above, your grocery shopping should lean more on fruits and vegetables. It is also a requirement for the sustainability of a healthy diet to freeze fresh fruits and vegetables in portions ready for consumption and/ or cooking in the cases where we are unable to leave our homes for longer periods. 

Considering the current season, some examples for durable vegetables may be cauliflowers, cabbages, zucchinis, broccolis, peppers, turnips, carrots and potatoes; while as for the fruits, the examples may be apples, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines and unripe bananas. Since citrus fruits are especially rich in Vitamin C to support the immune system, these fruits should be consumed more, and if possible, fresh lemon should be squirted into meals. To lengthen shelf lives of durable vegetables, store them in your fridge without washing or cutting them.  In addition, foods such as dried fruits, dried okras, eggplants, peppers or tomatoes have long shelf lives and are rich in fiber and minerals, therefore, having them at home would be beneficial.        

Another protein source alternative that is quite durable and nutritious is dry legumes. Foods such as green or red lentils, chickpeas, kinds of beans etc. may be consumed daily. However, storing them in a freezer after boiling them in large quantities in a way that allows for a quick meal once cooked would facilitate the consumption of dry legumes as products with longer cooking times. Preparing these products at home rather than buying them canned would be more suitable as a means to decrease the higher-than-recommended salt consumption in Turkey with regards to products with limited alternatives except for their canned preparations.

Although recommended to be consumed twice weekly, when fresh fish is not available, a recommendation would be to store frozen or canned tuna fish alternatives, in the event of a quarantine period. Compared to red meat and white meat as rich protein sources, fish may be oilier, and generally has less energy than equal amounts of red meat or white meat. Therefore, fish consumption should be increased.

Eggs and types of cheese are foods consisting of quality animal protein, and may also last a long time when stored in appropriate conditions. A sufficient amount of protein should be obtained in order for antibodies to work, as important defense mechanisms against viruses and bacteria that are causing diseases. In addition, the beneficial microorganisms in products such as yogurt with added probiotics or kefir may act to support the immune system, therefore, they may also be consumed in the current period.

Foods and drinks that should be limited in consumption in the current period are sugar and sugary foods or drinks that may cause spikes in blood sugar, pastries including white bread, processed meat products, and overly-salted products (ready-to-use sauces, salty products like chips, popcorn, salty cookies etc.). Consumption of alcoholic drinks with high energy content may be as limited as possible, since they may affect the absorption of vitamins and minerals, and cause sleep problems. In addition to a lack of evidence proving that alcohol consumption prevents the coronavirus infection, fake alcoholic drinks made using methyl alcohol instead of ethyl alcohol may cause serious cases of poisoning.

Although there are no findings showing that coronavirus may be contracted through foods, it is important to maintain the highest level of sanitation when preparing foods, bringing everything cooked to a high inner heat, especially meat products - or, in other words, cooking them well. 

Lastly, although consuming foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and oily seeds should be the actual course of action for sufficient vitamin and mineral consumption, vitamin and mineral supplements could be proposed as an alternative for people who may not follow the recommended diet as per the “Healthy Meal Plate” in Dietary Guidelines for Turkey.

Asst. Prof. Dr. Z. Begüm Kalyoncu
Atılım University School of Health Sciences
Chairperson for the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics

Selected Resources:

  1. Tr. Ministry of Health Türkiye'ye Özgü Besin ve Beslenme Rehberi (Dietary Guidelines for Turkey). Ankara: Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, School of Health Sciences, Hacettepe University. 2015:96.
  2. Insel PM. Discovering nutrition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers; 2013.
  3. The official website for World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019