On World Health Day, Let’s Pledge To Eat Right

Dr Jagmeet Madan | Apr 06, 2020

On World Health Day (April 7) countries around the globe remain focused on the ongoing pandemic. It is an unprecedented, mammoth and a fast-moving crisis that has dominated the global public health agenda over the past few weeks.

While on one hand it has compelled nations to strengthen their health systems and remain agile, it has also increased awareness levels among the general public about significance of having a good immune system to tide over infections. There seems to be an increasing public interest in understanding the essential prerequisites to boost ability to fight disease or enhancing our defense mechanisms of the body.

But with so much misinformation and ‘miracle cures’, facts are often lost among falsehoods. While it is no secret that having a strong immune system is essential in the fight against all health-related issues, there is much to be learnt about what we can do in this regard. No one should believe that intake of ‘immune boosting’ food items or nutrient supplements will change anything overnight. Only a sustained effort over a period of time creates a protective environment in the body.

So, where do we start?

Building a good immunity system is a slow and steady process, and nutrition is a critical determinant of an individual’s immune response. Immunity functions better when the body is well-nourished and has the building blocks it need to do its job. During these trying times, boosting one’s immunity with right nutrition along with adequate sleep, physical activity coupled with stress management is the only way forward.

The most important nutrients in the order of priority to strengthen body’s immunity include Proteins, Good Quality fat, Anti-infective Vitamins like Vitamin A and Vitamin C , Antioxidant vitamins and minerals like Vitamin E , Selenium and Zinc. To achieve the adequacy of these nutrients one has to take a food-based approach with a focus on maximizing the available food resources. With social distancing and restricted availability of variety of foods, the ability to select and combine the available protein and nutrient rich sources is of immense importance.

We need to give protein its due credit for the role it plays in an individual’s overall health, especially in building immunity. Protein-rich foods supply the essential amino acids which are
needed to synthesize the regulatory substances in the body, including hormones, antibodies, prostaglandins . These antibodies support immune system cells and attack viruses, bacteria or other foreign substances in the body. Thus it comes as no surprise when experts recommend that getting plenty of dietary protein gives you the best chance at keeping your body resistant to infections.

Both plant and animal sources of protein are good choices to strengthen immunity – just as long as consumption is in the right quantity and desired combinations of foods rich in protein. Animal protein, milk and milk products contain all essential amino acids and thus are categorized as First Class proteins. These proteins are of good quality and thus get assimilated in the body quickly, thereby responding to the body’s need in acute states of illness for early recovery, besides promoting general good health.

Combining plant-based proteins like pulses, nuts and oilseeds and coarser cereals in right proportions in preparations like khichadi, Bissebele, usal-misal, Thepla, Missi Roti, pancakes, nuts, cereal and oilseeds, chikki etc., are good examples of quality plant protein. As per the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) given by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR 2017) for Indians, 0.8 to 1 gm protein per kg body weight per day is sufficient to meet the basic nutritional requirements. A natural food-based approach of incorporating 25% of your plate to protein, 50% to fresh, green, yellow and orange vegetables and fruits and 25% to whole grain cereals will help you achieve the right nutritional balance.

However, at a time when awareness and practice of proper nutrition needs to take center stage, as a community, we dedicate very little time on the quality of food intake. Limited understanding, myths, ignorance and poor dietary choices have led to large scale nutrient deficiencies. Cause-based awareness programs like the government’s Eat Right India Initiative, Poshan Abhiyan, Aaj Se Thoda Kam, and others such as Right To Protein reiterate the need to eat nutrient-dense foods, decreasing the consumption of High Fat Salt Sugar Foods (HFSS) and enhancing nutrition security andquality eating, thereby making significant steps towards a healthy nation a national priority.

Such initiatives are leading to conversations that are increasingly relevant in these troubled times. More importantly, they are equipping citizens with standardized toolkits and resources in public domain customized to vulnerable age groups like young children, adolescents, pregnant women. This is helping in taking the necessary steps towards sensitization of the people at large to make dietary changes on a macro and micronutrient level to ensure proper nutrition for health maintenance, healing and recovery..

Proper nutrition also involves keeping HFSS foods out. Although the quarantine conditions may encourage bouts of ‘binge eating’ of ready-to-eat foods, an effort should be made to keep their intake to a minimum of 20-30 percent of the total daily intake. It is extremely important to emphasize the use locally available, accessible and sustainable foods amidst the current restrictions. One crucial piece of advice for people in quarantine at home, who cannot get to shops, is to replace the non-vegetarian options of protein foods with legumes, such as beans, pulses and soy which contain high quality, nutrient-dense stores of protein. Adequate fluid intake is also of vital element to immunity – as is proper rest and sleep.
To boost one’s immune system and to resist and overcome infections, requires nutrition preparation and ‘balanced’ eating. To start leading a healthier lifestyle, there is no better day than today.

(The author is a Nutrition Expert and Professor, Principal, Sir Vithaldas Thackersey College of Home Science (Autonomous) SNDTWU, Mumbai and National President, Indian Dietetic Association, Supporter of the Right To Protein Initiative)