Q&A: Nutrition in light of the coronavirus

Eman Youssef, Friday 27 Mar 2020

Nutrition consultant Dr. Mostafa Sary discusses ways to strengthen the immune system and stay healthy given the spread of the viral disease

Dr. Mostafa Sary
Dr. Mostafa Sary (Photo: SnapShot From YouTube)

Ahram Online spoke to nutrition consultant Dr. Mostafa Sary about how to strengthen the immune system and avoid gaining weight while staying at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

EY: How can we strengthen our bodies' immunity in order to be able fight the virus?

MS: One of the ways to strengthen the body’s immunity is to avoid stress, because it can easily weaken immunity.

You should try to stay as calm as possible, as pressure leads to the secretion of the hormone cortisol, which weakens the immune system of the body.

To enhance the immune system, it is also important to sleep sufficiently and well. When you sleep long enough and have quality and deep sleep, you find that the body is working better and getting comfortable, and thus the stress and tension that weakens and reduces immunity will decrease.

To stimulate the immune system, we must drink water continuously. 

The immune system is composed of an external part, which is the skin, the cleanliness of which must be taken care of. The second part is the internal system, which is the lymph nodes, spleen, tonsils, intestines, bone marrow, white blood cells and useful bacteria in the intestine. This is the immune system in general.

The first tactic of immunity is the skin. Therefore, the hands should be washed with soap and water, which is the most important, more than the chlorine and alcohol that people are currently flocking to buy, because the coronavirus is a non-living organism -- it is DNA surrounded by a membrane. Washing your hands thoroughly for a sufficient amount of time removes this membrane. So paying more attention to cleanliness will be your first method of protection from the virus and increasing the body's external immunity.

As for the internal organs, they must work with good efficiency. Blood circulation nourishes the internal organs. In order to stimulate blood circulation, we can practice simple sports. The simplest sport is walking at least 120 minutes a week, 15 minutes per day with good and regular breathing such as inhaling air from the nose deeply and exhaling it from the mouth to strengthen the respiratory system.

This is advisable, because this virus specialises in attacking the respiratory system.

In these current circumstances, where we must be inside the house, it is possible to move and walk in the house for ten minutes and move our legs, and this gives comfort to the internal parts of the body and stimulates the blood circulation of the respiratory system.

EY: What are the most important foods that boost immunity?

MS: We must eat food that is rich in zinc, which is one of the most powerful minerals that fight and destroy the virus and contribute to strengthening the immune system, because it stimulates the blood circulation of the cell and thus has the ability to attack the virus.

Zinc is found in abundance in shellfish and crab. It is also found in red meat, chicken, white beans and nuts, especially cashews. As for dairy products, they contain a moderate percentage of zinc.

Among the most important vitamins that help to strengthen immunity is vitamin C, which is found in all vegetables and many fruits, such as strawberries, broccoli, guava, oranges and lemons. It is very important to eat citrus fruits and vegetables, especially during this period, to get vitamin C. Garlic is also very beneficial.

Fibre is also important to raise immunity, including both hard and soft, to increase the useful bacteria in the intestine. We can find it in all types of vegetables and fruits, whether soluble fibre, which absorbs fats from the intestine, or insoluble fibre, which increases the movement and activity of the intestine, and thus increases the useful bacteria that fight viruses. So it is advised to eat fibre-rich food.

To increase immunity, there are some herbs, the most important of which is echinacea, which can be consumed instead of tea and coffee. Its taste is similar to that of green tea. It is one of the herbs that raises the body's immunity very well and can be found in herbs’ stores.

MS: Which foods should be avoided now that might weaken immunity?

EY: Among the foods that reduce immunity, we find all kinds of sweets, sugars, desserts, fats, flour, honey, white sugar and everything that is white and contains carbohydrates. These should be avoided as much as possible.

And we must stay away from fast foods, as their nutritional value is very low and their calories are very high and contain a high percentage of unsaturated fats, taking into consideration that the virus feeds on sugars.

EY: What should be avoided once symptoms are felt?

MS: If a person becomes infected with the virus or feels symptoms, he should immediately avoid and completely stop eating eggs, milk, cheese, sweets and sugars because they are very tasty foods for the virus and give it an opportunity to reproduce in order to grow in the body and also control it.

EY: What should we add to our diet now to help fight the virus?

MS: We must add celery and cucumber to our diet. A celery juice can be made with the addition of lemon to get both vitamin C and soluble fibre. Cucumber juice, carrots and oranges are very important to increase immunity.

EY: Are there natural recipes that help increase the efficiency of the immune system?

MS: The recipes that are currently circulating, such as adding olive oil with honey, etc. are not related to strengthening the immune system.

One of the basic natural recipes for increasing immunity is garlic. You should eat a garlic clove every day, make it your routine the first thing in the morning, as it is anti-fungal and anti-harmful microbes and contains vitamin C and antioxidants. It is possible to divide the garlic clove into three pieces and then drink two cups of water.

EY: How can we protect the health of our children?

MS: We can protect our children by providing them with healthy food and completely banning fast food. We can focus on drinking natural, home-made juices, which we must drink immediately after preparing.

We must increase children's consumption of vegetables and fruits. We must also teach them the importance of eating healthy food, and they should be instructed to keep distance from others and stay at home.

EY: How can we protect ourselves from infection?

MS: We can protect ourselves through social awareness, isolation, and keeping distance between one another. All activities must be stopped during this period. Sports can be practiced at home. Staying home cuts short the infection cycle and virus’ life cycle. There may be infected people who do not show symptoms, and one infected person can infect all surrounding people.

The most important advice for people, [therefore], is to commit to staying at home, as the issue is very dangerous and cannot be underestimated.

Attention should be paid to personal hygiene, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, not touching any surfaces, and avoiding hugging and shaking hands. If everyone commits to stay at home, this violent and urgent crisis may pass in peace. This is an epidemic that we must halt.

EY: How do we avoid gaining weight while staying at home?

MS: Some people may be afraid of being overweight or want to maintain their weight. I advise that the most important thing is being calm, because immunity is affected by psychological state. Stress and pressure reduce immunity, so we must stay calm, because some people, when affected psychologically, tend to eat.

Avoiding stress is beneficial for boosting immunity and not resorting to overeating as a solution or shelter. You must eat three meals per day, breakfast, lunch and dinner, and between each meal there should be about four to six hours.

Sleeping for at least eight hours is necessary in order to maintain our weight and increase immunity, and between meals it is possible to eat vegetables and fruits.

Sweets and desserts should be avoided during this period. It is preferred that one of the main meals contains red meat, protein, fish or white beans in large quantities, salad and vegetables in a large amount, while starches should be reduced.

Breakfast can consist of fava beans (ful) with eggs. Reduce dairy products a little bit. Each meal should include salad and vegetables. We should avoid eating chocolate and replace it with fruit or vegetables.

Do not forget to drink warm drinks throughout the day, such as tea, green tea, celery juice with or without honey, orange, or carrot with lemon. Soft drinks should be avoided completely.

We must move constantly inside the house, and we occupy ourselves with any physical exercise inside the house, so it is possible to help with housework, increase physical activity, or play with children and have good rest.

You can eat nuts between meals. You must not order fast food because it is high in calories and low in nutritional value.

As for people who are already overweight, they can make use of staying at home to lose weight. It is very important for all people in general to drink water, at least three large bottles per day.

As for the appropriate diet, for breakfast, you can choose from a quarter of a piece of a baladi bread or a slice of toast and five tablespoons of ful with lemon with a green salad, or five tablespoons of cottage cheese instead of ful.

You can eat a small piece of fruit between breakfast and lunch. As for lunch, you can choose between any amount of grilled fish with green salad and fruit, or yogurt with green salad, sauteed vegetables and fruit, or half a chicken and green salad or sauteed vegetables with a quarter of a piece of baladi bread or a slice of toast.

You should drink two cups of water during your meal, and also eat fruit between lunch and dinner.

For dinner, you can choose either corn flakes with a small cup of skimmed milk or toast and a boiled egg with a green salad, and also it is recommended to drink two cups of water during dinner. It is allowed to use spices on food, and to add two tablespoons of skimmed milk to your tea or coffee once a day, and to use sugar substitutes.

EY: How can we assess our immunity and know whether it is strong or not?

MS: If the infection of the common cold is repeated every two or three months, or the person feels constantly exhausted, or health problems appear on the skin, this is an indication of weak immunity.

People with some chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and blood pressure problems also suffer from weak immunity and need zinc, selenium and antioxidants to maintain their immunity.

EY: In general, what do you think about taking antibiotics, nutritional supplements and vitamins?

MS: Antibiotics weaken and reduce the body's immunity and should not be used without medical supervision. It is not advised to resort to them if you feel any problem such as high fever, because they weaken immunity.

It is preferable to take supplements naturally from normal food instead of capsules. As for minerals such as zinc, it can be taken in the form of pills from the pharmacy at the rate of one tablet per day, if the person cannot eat shellfish, fish, crab, meat, nuts or some dairy products that contain zinc. If we eat vegetables and salads, we do not need to take nutritional supplements in the form of capsules or vitamins.

EY: Is it important now, in this period, to eat honey?

MS: Honey is one of the simple sugars, and our goal now is to strengthen the immune system, but sugars and desserts reduce immunity in the current period. Honey is a cure for people, of course, but in this period it is preferable to focus on the nutrients that I mentioned earlier; for example, we need very large amounts of zinc.

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