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What are the major nutritional concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Increased consumption of cheap processed foods and reduced physical activity are among the key drivers of the double burden of malnutrition. The current global pandemic of Coronavirus (COVID-19), and measures taken to reduce its spread, have disrupted food environments across the world. The consumption of processed foods is increasing at the expense of fresh and minimally processed foods resulting in diets that are of low nutritional quality, energy-dense and high in sugars, salt, and fats. Financial hardships, reduced physical activity, and altered purchasing patterns favouring foods with longer shelf life and often poorer nutrition quality can lead to higher levels of food insecurity, undernutrition, and overweight/ obesity. Unhealthy eating is also affected by conditions of stress, distress, and emotional disturbance.

Why is it important to eat healthy during this time?

People who are poorly nourished are at greater risk of bacterial, viral, and other infections. Eating enough nutrients from a variety of whole foods is required for the health and function of all cells, including immune cells. Dietary patterns that are lower in nutrients, e.g. consisting primarily of ultra-processed foods, can negatively affect the immune system. In addition to eating healthy, a general healthy lifestyle is also important to support your immune system during this time. This means not smoking, moderate exercise regularly, getting enough sleep and trying to minimise stress.

How many people in South Africa were overweight or obese before the COVID-19 pandemic?

The 2016 South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS) found that 68 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men in the country are overweight or obese. About 20 per cent of women and three per cent of men are severely obese. Approximately 13.3 per cent of children younger than five years are overweight or obese which is more than double the global average of 6.1 per cent. The 2012 South African Nutrition and Health Examination Survey (SANHANES) showed that 14.2 per cent of children aged six to 14 years are overweight or obese.

What tips can be followed for the safe preparation and storage of food?

The following safety tips should always be followed (COVID-19 or not) to protect against foodborne illness:

  • Clean surfaces and your hands before and after handling food. Remember to wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Do NOT wash produce with soap, bleach, sanitizer, alcohol, disinfectant or any other chemical. Gently rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under cold, running tap water.
  • Separate raw and ready-to-eat foods.
  • Cook foods to proper minimum internal temperatures, especially meat, eggs, poultry and seafood
  • Chill foods in the refrigerator or freezer.
  • Keep utensils clean

Are there specific foods or nutrients that can help to boost immunity?

There are no specific food or supplements that will prevent you contracting COVID-19. There are many nutrients that are involved with the normal functioning of the body, including the immune system. For instance, each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). Therefore it is important to eat a variety of whole, mostly unprocessed or minimally processed foods from plants, for instance vegetables, fruits, starchy foods and legumes (dry beans, peas, lentils and soya) that will provide many different nutrients in order to support immune functioning. Long-lasting fruit and vegetables such as citrus fruits and root vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals needed for a good immune system. Furthermore, vegetables and fruit, legumes and minimally processed starchy foods contribute to fibre intake. Fibre is the preferred fuel of the bacteria living in the gut. Keeping these bacteria well fed makes for a healthy gut – the place where more than 70 per cent of our immune cells are situated!

To download the Q&A document with references, click here.