Eat well to support your gut health and immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic

With the Coronavirus lockdown continuing and everyday life on pause for the foreseeable future, it’s completely understandable that people are worried about COVID-19 and want to do anything they can to support their immune system and protect themselves, and their loved ones, from catching it. However, while it’s great that health and wellbeing is now at the forefront of many people’s minds, the virtual world that we’re all living in at the moment has sent ‘nutribabble’ through the roof. And, as a dietitian it concerns me how much misinformation and ‘half baked’ nutrition claims are flooding the Internet and doing the rounds on social media sites. So, don’t believe everything you read, see or hear!

Despite what ‘covinfluencers’, ‘Insta-gurus’ and ‘self-styled nutritionists’ - who have little to no qualifications apart from a lifetime of eating- would have you believe, there’s no one ‘miracle’ food you can eat, no special diet that you can follow and no ‘immune boosting’ supplements you can take that will give you superhero coronavirus fighting powers. So although tempting, claims about eating garlic, drinking industrial strength alcohol or water every 15 minutes, taking herbal remedies and mega doses of vitamin C and D supplements are just nonsensical, and potentially dangerous, too! So what’s the best way to support your immune system?


Looking for smarter ways to support your immune system? Eating a balanced, adequate and varied diet, and looking after your gut health is the way to go...

With no reliable drugs to combat COVID-19 and a vaccine still a long way off, it's more important than ever to support your immune system by eating and living well, and good gut health can help, too.

Happily for us, by nature food is naturally packaged with a mixture of different nutrients to support a healthy immune system, and eating a wide variety of healthy foods, including lots of minimally processed plant-based foods, will give our bodies and our guts (including the trillions of microbes that have set up home within it) everything needed to help us to stay healthy during these hugely challenging and troublesome times. 


What’s the link between our gut health and immune health?

Now, I am NOT saying that having a healthy gut will make us any less likely to catch COVID-19 - self isolating, hand washing and social distancing remain the most important actions to take to protect ourselves and others. But, with an estimated 70 per cent of our immune system found in our gut and out of balance gut microbes linked with a wide range of conditions including obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes (all potential risk factors for COVID-19) it makes sense to take care of our gut health and our good gut bug community, and ensure that they are well nourished with every bite. Because in return, they’ll help take care of after us - and being healthy could help reduce our chances of becoming really poorly if we do catch it!

So today I want to jump online and share with you some of my top diet and lifestyle tips on supporting your immune system, including how best to take care of your gut and your little bug helpers down there; discuss whether now is the right time to ‘diet’, and which food supplements may actually give you a little helping hand. So grab a cuppa, sit down and relax while I give you the low-down on eating healthily and living well during the COVID-19 pandemic.


What should we be doing to support our gut health and immune system during Covid19?

First off, contrary to what the headlines say, we don’t actually want to “boost” our immune system. This is a mix-up of how our immune system actually works - an immune system, which is overactive, can actually lead to as many problems such as allergies and autoimmune conditions, as a compromised one, which fails to protect our bodies against foreign substances that may do it harm. A healthy immune system - like many things in our body, including our gut microbes - likes to be in balance and we can support its normal functioning by eating a healthy, well-balanced diet.


Variety and Balance.

Balance is absolutely key when it comes to eating well for a healthy immune system and a healthy gut. Balance your diet right with a wide range of different foods from each of the key food groups  - fruits and veg; starchy wholegrain carbs; protein rich foods (and heroing plant-based versions - peas, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds); dairy and alternatives; and unsaturated oils, and keep your portions in check, and you can be sure that you’re getting all the key nutrients needed to support a healthy immune system (such as copper, iron, selenium, zinc and vitamins A, B6, B9 (folate) B12, C and D) and a healthy gut (such as fibre, prebiotics and polyphenols plant compounds).


Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Enjoy a wide range of fruits and vegetables - at least five portions - and eat the rainbow, as different colours supply different vitamins and minerals and phytochemicals. Five-a-day may seem like a struggle when you cannot always get your hands on fresh ingredients, but don’t forget that tinned, frozen, dried and fruit juice still count and are just as nutritious, so stock up on canned pulses (beans, peas and lentils), fruit (in natural juice) and veg (in unsalted water), frozen peas and mixed veg and berries.


Keep active.

Although gyms and leisure centres are still closed, there’re still lots of ways to get in some daily exercise with so many workout videos available online. Unlimited exercise outside is now permitted under the new Government rules, so turn off the TV, get off your phone and head outside in the for some fresh air and to soak up some vitamin D, too. Exercise is good for the body and mind, and for our gut too. And of course, it’ll help counteract any little indulgences during lockdown. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity on most days of the week and do strength training at least twice – something like brisk walking, riding a bike or even pushing the law mower – that will get you a little puffed but still be able to carry on a conversation.


Always get enough sleep.

Sleep is so important for our gut, immune and overall health, so don’t stay up late staring at TV and phone screens for too long, and get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night.


Moderate your alcohol intake.

Even though it may be tempting to drink more alcohol than usual in this time of self-isolation, make sure you stick to no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Drinking too much alcohol can cause liver damage and can create a less homely environment for your gut microbes. Alcohol also contains lots of calories too, which could lead to weight gain during lockdown. So get inventive with alternatives – go for NoLo (no alcohol or low alcohol drinks), swap an after work lager for a kombucha or if wine is your favourite tipple, opt for red wine - as it is rich in those gut-friendly polyphenols - and alternate with a glass of water to rehydrate.


Get cooking.

If nothing else, lockdown is giving us the chance to get our cooking mojo back and ditch our reliance on nutrient poor ‘ultra’- processed foods, which do our gut and immune health no favours. So dig out those old family favourite recipes or try something new, with new ingredients – you may even learn a few new cooking skills along the way.


Embrace the change.

While stockpiling has thankfully come to an end, some of our usual store cupboard essentials are still selling out quickly, so think about this time as a chance to try something new, increase variety into your diet, and a range of new flavours and textures. Our gut microbes do well on a wide array of different foods and nutrients, so try varying your meals and snacks from day to day, or as lockdown goes on week to week, and always be open to trialing new ingredients like ancient fibre rich grains, unusual legumes, hybrid fruit and veg, different herbs and spices and fermented foods – your gut microbes will thank you.


Healthier snacking.

The challenges of working from home with easy access to the kitchen might mean that you’re snacking more than normal. While snacking can be part of a balanced diet, it all depends on what you’re snacking on and how much! So, if you’re a bit of a snacker load up your kitchen cupboards with healthy, nutritious snacks that will help stave off those mid-morning tummy rumbles and support your gut health and immune system too. Why not trading in those fatty, salty and sugary crisps, chocolates and biscuits for some wholegrain popcorn with a sprinkling of cinnamon, dried fruit or fruit slices, vegi sticks and hummous, oatcakes and nut butter or a handful of unsalted nuts and seeds.


Drink plenty.

We need water to help us function properly, to carry nutrients and oxygen around our body, help control our body temperature and help lubricate our digestive system – and now that the weather is getting hotter, it’s even more important to drink enough to feel and function at our best. We get some fluid from the foods we eat, but on top of this, we need to drink around 1.6 - 2 litres a day. And there’s no need to go to the shops for essentials - water is the best choice as it’s calorie, additive and sugar free, and comes straight from our taps.


Turn to batch cooking.

In these days of supermarket queues, it makes sense to embrace batch cooking – making up large quantities of your favourite meals from stews to soups and curries - and then freezing them can not only save you time and money, and reduce food waste, but it will ensure that your meals are full of goodness including your gut microbes favourite nutrients like fibre.


Eat more plants.

This doesn’t mean you need become a vegetarian or vegan during lockdown, but meat (especially quality meat) can be expensive, and with many of us trying to watch our pennies, it might be a great time to eat less meat and eat more plants.  So, try making your meals more plant-based – for example, try using less meat in your chilli con carne or bolognaise and bulk it out with added mushrooms, lentils or beans. This also works for shepherd or cottage pies, soups, stir fries and lasagnes too. Or you could use meat substitutes like tofu, quorn, jackfruit and temph. And, rather than pining about the meat that you are cutting down on, try to think about all those delicious foods you can eat more of such as fruit, veggies, fish, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and wholegrains. Another lockdown challenge  - try to eat 30 or more different types of plant foods in a week!


Re-organise your kitchen cupboards.

We’ve all got a lot more time on our hands now that we're staying at home more, so it’s a great opportunity to de-clutter our kitchens and get our food cupboards into a healthier shape. Before doing anything else, clear out any jars and tins that are out of date and move any ‘naughties’ to a low shelf or out of eye line. Then restock with healthier plant-based staples and snacks like wholegrain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, pulses, high fibre breakfast cereals, wholegrain crackers, long life plant-based milks, nut butters, dried fruit, popcorn kernels and nuts and seeds, and re-organise the layout too, so that the good gut stuff is easy to get to.


Keep calm.

Although eating a healthy, balanced diet is an important piece in the puzzle of keeping our gut healthy and our immune system strong, it’s also important to look after your mental health, too. When we’re worried and stressed we often feel it in our gut, so try to keep a lid on your anxiety levels during these worrisome times. If you feel anxious in the morning, do some mindfulness exercises first thing to help prepare you mentally for the lockdown day head. If you’re stressed with work and juggling little ones, reach out to family and friends via zoom for some support, take a break where possible to enjoy a cup of tea or a walk round the garden – the fresh air and gentle exercise will really lift your mood.


Is lockdown the right time to go on a diet?

By definition going on a ‘diet’ infers there’s a start and stop date, meaning you’ll only change what you eat during these times. The result: when you come out of lockdown and ‘finish your diet’ you’ll return to the same eating habits that piled on the pounds in the first place. More so, while maintaining and achieving a health weight is important – as NHS data reveals that obese people are more likely to die from COVID-19 - it’s not the right time for unnecessary restriction and quick-fix diets. ‘Faddy diets’ tend to fly in the face of healthy eating advice, and cutting out whole food groups like carbs - without any medical need - will not only mean your body is not getting all the nutrients it needs, but it can also damage the balance of your gut microbes by starving them of their favourite fibre fodder.

People who lose weight gradually and steadily – about 1-2lbs a week are more successful at keeping weight off. So, ditch the ‘diet’ mentality this lockdown and instead, just plan to change your eating habits for good, watch your portions and focus on the huge number of other benefits that eating well will have besides losing weight, such as better gut health, a happier and sharper mind, a healthy immune system, and a lower risk of cancer.


Should I take a food supplement to support my immune health and protect me from COVID-19?

First off, remember no one nutrient – not vitamin C, D or zinc - or a supplement is going to prevent or fight off COVID-19! You should be able to get all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to support a healthy immune system from eating a varied and well-balanced diet, with a kaleidoscope of fruit and vegetables. However, if you’re finding it hard to eat healthily during lockdown and think you need some additional support, then a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement can help to top up any dietary shortfalls and help you reach the recommended levels of key nutrients, which we need to support good health.

And, even if your diet is varied and balanced diet, with so many of us having to stay indoors more than usual, it can be hard to get enough of the ‘sunshine vitamin’ D. So, although we’re now in the spring and summer months when the sun’s UVB rays are strong enough to make vitamin D in our skin, if you’re having to self isolate or if you’re unable to go outside at the moment, you should consider taking 10 micrograms of vitamin D to support your immune health. And, eat plenty of vitamin D rich foods, such as oily fish, eggs, some mushrooms and margarines and cereals fortified with vitamin D.


What about a probiotics?

If your healthy eating habits have gone out of the window during lockdown; you’re taking antibiotics; trying to manage any digestive discomforts, or you simply feel your gut health needs some extra support, consider taking a probiotic supplement and look for the brands with high concentrations and multiple strains of bacteria. The proof is in the eating – try it daily for at least four weeks, in the amount recommended by the manufacturer, while monitoring how you feel!


The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Go to the NHS.UK for information if you have symptoms of COVID-19.

And always seek the advice of your GP, Pharmacist or other health professional if you’ve got struggling with gut symptoms or low immunity, you’re pregnant, on medication or you have a medical condition that means you’re immune suppressed and wanting to boost your friendly gut microbe community with VSL#3.