Food for immunity: Experts from across India on the power of eating right for COVID prevention, management and recovery
Eating right has never been more important than now. We are facing a pandemic that affects different people with various grades of severity — that ranges from asymptomatic to outright fatality. The buzzword is immunity. And it all comes down to the individual’s health and wellness that decides the severity of COVID-19 infection or the prevention of the same. With the inundation of conflicting information on our timelines — here we have attempted to sort, verify and plan your grocery list with a focus on foods, diets and ingredients that can help to boost your immunity and equip your body for COVID-19 prevention, management and recovery. Nutritionists, chefs and other experts weigh in with valuable suggestions, recipes and diet tips.
No magic concoctions
Right in the beginning we must caution you, as Preeti Shukla, consultant registered dietician and national executive member — Indian Dietetic Association, from Indore, says, “Immunity cannot be built in a day.” The nutritionist and dietician further added that it is a continuous process, that over a prolonged period of a healthy diet, will build amino acids that will in turn help in making antibodies to fight any infection. In fact, she tells us that in Madhya Pradesh, at the time of admission — two questions are asked in hospitals: How much is the oxygen saturation? And, what is the weight of the patient? “The well nourished and healthy have a good prognosis — whereas, those malnourished and overweight struggle.” She further explains how the concept of a one-pot meal in today’s busy lifestyles has brought down the nutrition quotient of our food at home.
“However, the key is moderation. There is no one super food out there that can protect you 100 per cent. In fact, the recent trend of gulping down numerous cups of kadha (kashayam in the South) is proving to be counterproductive. Did you know that cinnamon has hepatotoxic properties?” Sheryl Salis, dietician and certified diabetes educator, founder — Nurture Health Solutions, agrees, and adds, “Excessive use of spice decoctions (kadha) or spices may cause internal bleeding, acidity, mouth and stomach ulcers, rashes, acne and other health issues. So, consume in moderation.”
Do you have the guts for it?
Recently the Government of India released a list of ingredients that can boost your immunity and it included whole grains, nuts, seeds, and dark chocolate, among others. Across the country, we find that doctors, communities and experts are discerning and digging into our food history to find the answer to good immunity. Ritu Sudhakar, chief dietician at Dayanand Medical College and Hospital, Ludhiana, insists that it all begins with your gut. “To begin with, give up processed foods and eat only fresh and seasonal options.” She explains how fresh food is good for your gut health and that, in turn; it plays a huge role in immunity. “In Punjab, we are an agricultural community, so you will find many traditional food habits that are healthy and wholesome.” A big advocate for replacing refined grains with millets, she tells us how fermented food has always been part of the traditional menu and how we must incorporate the likes of sattu (gruel made of sprouted barley or chickpeas) and kanji. Unlike South Indian kanji which often has fermented rice, kaanji in North India comprises water infused with powdered mustard and chopped vegetables like carrots and beets. The mixture is allowed to ferment in sunlight for four to five days before you can bottle and refrigerate it for consumption. “This works as a probiotic and has antioxidant properties.” Meanwhile, we note that Mumbai-based celebrity nutritionist Rujuta Diwekar posted on her Instagram page: the benefit of the humble South Indian staple — thayir sadam — is, it’s an excellent source of prebiotics and probiotics — and has especially suggested the same when the appetite is low, usually during the recovery phase of COVID-19.
Good moringa, everyone!
Lekha Sreedharan, DGM and head of dietetics, Apollo Cradle Maternity & Children’s Hospital, Chennai, reiterated the importance of gut health, and said, “The microbes in our gut play a very important role in our immune activity.” One of her favourite immunity-boosting ingredients is moringa (drumsticks) — leaves et al. She adds that it stimulates the immune system and makes for a great addition to the diet, though just like Preethi, she cautions that a single ingredient cannot change your health and wellness. Ipsita Chakravarti, HOD, Dietetics, Calcutta Medical Research Institute (CMRI), Kolkata, also picks moringa as a valuable inclusion and adds that, “One should always be conscious of any comorbidities that might be existing and pay attention to it. Meanwhile, fresh fruits like sweet lime and guava are great sources of Vitamin C and should be included in your diet.”
Lekha further adds the importance of Vitamin D and urges all to get at least 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight, especially from 11 am to 1 pm. Talking about Vitamin C; Lekha swears by the properties in the Indian gooseberry (amla) and suggests that we replace tamarind in our chutneys with amla. Adding to the thought we have Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach, integrative and lifestyle medicine, who says, “Between consuming a 1,000 mg Vitamin C supplement and amla — I’d choose amla provided one can access it and eat it. This is the richest source of Vitamin C. Unless your doctor prescribes a vitamin; you can just do with an amla. One can consume this in the form of juice, dehydrated powder, or dried amla — it loses none of its nutritional content.” Moving on to nutrients in our daily food — he further notes that Indian diets lately comprised less protein and more carbohydrates. In fact, Preethi had put it down to the hustle-bustle of modern living where carb-rich one-pot meals are about convenience.
Power up with proteins
Sheryl shares how proteins have a big role to play in healing and repair. “It is necessary to consume good quality protein adequately in your diet every day, preferably at every meal for the immune system to function optimally and to help you overcome post-COVID-19 weakness.” The dietician elaborates on the type of nutrition support one needs during a COVID-19 infection. “Fatigue, shortness of breath, dryness of mouth, lack of taste and smell results in decreased food intake. Eat small, frequent, energy and nutrient-dense meals to avoid breathlessness. Eat slowly; choose foods which are soft, moist and easy to swallow.” She suggests using different flavours, spices and herbs to enhance taste and smell. Meanwhile, keep yourself hydrated by drinking boiled water throughout the day. She further encourages all to “Eat your rainbow” — “Coloured fruits and vegetables are a rich source of antioxidants which help boost immunity. Colour your plate by including fresh, seasonal, local fruits and vegetables like pumpkin, bell peppers, carrots, tomatoes and papaya.”
Hydrate and how
Hyderabad-based nutritionist Nikhil Chaudhary, also gives us useful dietary insights from his experience of working with COVID-19 patients in the last one-and-a-half years. He stresses on liquid consumption, as in his opinion it is one of the strongest ammunitions against viral infections. “Most of my patients resorted to consuming five to eight litres of liquids every day including mineral water, buttermilk, herbal teas, green juices, lemon juice, golden water (water + turmeric) and so on,” says Nikhil, adding that he does not recommend fruit juices and milk. Nikhil highlights research from a team at Russia’s Vector State Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology in Novosibirsk, Siberia that has discovered that drinking normal temperature water can actually restrict the growth of the coronavirus. He elaborates, “Water makes up more than 60 per cent of our body and it is the best armour we have to fight COVID-19 and other viral infections. Avoid demineralised and low TDS RO water. Stick to drinking mineral water or mineralising the RO water by adding minerals/fruits and vegetable slices before drinking.”
Foods that heal: Traditional dishes from the Indian kitchen that we should incorporate into our diets
Indian curry: The base of every Indian curry is nutrient-dense. It contains onions, tomatoes, garlic, a source of good fat – which is mostly ghee, coconut oil or mustard oil; turmeric, black pepper and salt. Over and above these are spices like cumin, cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, star anise, bay leaf, asafoetida or whatever the preference is. Adding vegetables like cauliflower, cabbage and broccoli that are cruciferous and highly anti-inflammatory also helps. They help detoxify your liver and lymphatic system. They are rich in DIM dimethyl indole-3-carbinol, an ingredient that is known to handle estrogen dominances very well. The spices in curries also boost respiratory health and act as a powerful decongestant.
Khichdi or Pongal: This Indian gruel is a super food, but a lot of ignorant people have misled the rest by saying that it’s a ‘carb-rich meal.’ No, khichdi is a complete protein. Pair it with a glass of chaas or mor (buttermilk) and you give yourself a completely balanced meal. The beauty of this power meal lies in food synergy, which is how two or more ingredients in a dish complement each other. When you apply traditional wisdom and mix it with lentils/pulses/legumes/vegetables, you create a balanced dish that has complete protein.
Rasam: This broth is an elixir of health. If you have a cold, have a warm bowl of rasam, and notice how it helps loosen up your mucous and congestion — an indication that it’s helping you heal. Rasam,
rich in spices like black pepper, curry leaves, and cumin, can break down the mucous in your lungs faster.
Sambar: Similarly, sambar contains turmeric, lentils, black pepper and other vegetables as well. Using a vegetable like pumpkin is amazing when it comes to boosting the immune system in kids, young and older adults. Another important ingredient of sambar is drumstick. Drumstick, also known as moringa, is an excellent immunity booster too. The leaves and seeds of drumsticks are beneficial for your health. Sambar is the perfect balance of good protein, fibre, zinc, folic acid, iron, vitamins and minerals, which boost your digestion and your immunity.
— Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach, integrative and lifestyle medicine and founder, YouCare — All about YOU
Nature above all
My advice as a chef to everyone is to use nature, which has smartly put medicines in the food around us.The best option is to prevent the infection by following all COVID protocols but the second-best option is to be fighting ready by having a great immunity-boosting system ready to defend your body with minimal damage. One should also remember that our body and its immune system is a very complex system, so it takes time to achieve the desired immunity levels.
— Chef Sharad Dewan, regional director of food productions at The Park Hotels
Recipe: Herbal immunity booster drink
4 basil or Krishna tulsi leaves | 1 clove | 1/2 inch grated ginger | 1/2 tsp organic turmeric powder | 1/8 tsp black pepper powder | 1 tsp coriander seeds | 3/4 cup giloy/Amruthavalli juice (Tinospora Quadrifolia) | 1/3 tsp lemon juice |
1 tsp rock sugar powder or 1/2 tsp honey or 1/4 tsp black salt
To 1 1/2 cups of water, add the tulsi leaves, clove, ginger, black pepper and coriander seeds — allow to boil for 3-4 minutes.
Strain the mixture and add giloy juice + turmeric powder + lemon juice + rock sugar or honey or black salt for diabetics.
Mix well and have this powerful immunity booster drink every morning on an empty stomach. (One can take this decoction without giloy too, if unavailable).The benefits of this drink are immense and in multiple spheres. It is anti-viral, anti-bacterial, antiseptic and rich in antioxidants, eugenol, minerals and vitamins.
People with auto-immune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, etc should take giloy in this drink only after medical advice. Also, people with gastric ulcers, hyperacidity or others where it may simply disagree with their constitution should avoid or take this drink only under medical advice.
Courtesy: Dr Jayesh V Sanghvi MD (Hom); director, Dr Sanghvi’s Nature Clinic; and vice-chairman, Global Homeopathy Foundation
Let’s start with the basics — hitting micro and macro goals, drinking water daily, exercising, managing gut health, undertaking symptoms and syndromes of your current situation and rectifying them, getting those regular blood checkups and bridging gaps with foods and/or supplements; and taking care of your mental well-being. On the whole, our immunity does a fantastic job of defending you against disease-causing micro-organisms — but sometimes — it fails and a germ/bacteria/virus invades successfully. The immune system is not really a single entity and to function well it requires balance and harmony and the first line of defense that even you can keep a check on is — choosing a healthy lifestyle!
— Minacshi Pettukola, Nutritionist, Chennai
This is something I am very passionate about — it is called mindful eating. It means taking slow breaths before you start eating and between mouthfuls, chewing your food carefully (20-30 chews per mouthful), keeping your hands on the table between bites, until you have swallowed your current mouthful, and giving thanks and gratitude for the food you have. This helps us to slow down, eat just the right amount and not
continuously overeat. This is very important for our overall health and digestion — and our immunity is a function of this.
— Sarah Edwards, certified health coach and plant-based chef, Bengaluru
Good quality sleep is really important for your immune system. During sleep your body releases cytokines that in turn function as protection against infections. Your deep slumber further helps in the efficiency of T- helper cells (they fight bacteria, viruses and foreign bodies). I also suggest you take your time in sunlight seriously. Bask in the sun for at least 20 minutes daily.
— Shiny Chandran, sports and preventive health nutritionist, Chennai
Immunity should always be seen as something that can be built over time and not something that can be boosted suddenly. Making small consistent changes in your lifestyle is the best way to go about building immunity.
Preventive measures that can be taken:
• Ginger tea in the morning and night.
• Having a balanced meal that consists of grains, lentils/meat, vegetables and raw vegetables. For a diverse nutrient source to build immunity.
• The traditional sattu drink in the evening to build immunity
• Warm salt water gargle before bedtime.
Steaming is definitely the healthiest method of cooking and retains maximum nutrition. However, incorporating fermented foods regularly into your diet is a better way to improve your gut health and increase the nutrients in the food. Eg: Fermented rice (pazhaya sadam), fermented millets (kambu koozh), homemade pickles, kanji, etc. When in quarantine with COVID-19, always look to have simple food which is well balanced. You should look to incorporate grains, lentils, cooked vegetables and raw vegetables for a speedy recovery.
— Chef Aaron Coutinho, founder of Chefcouts Food and Wellness, Mumbai
COVID recovery plan
Mumbai-based Shweta Shah is a celebrity nutritionist whose clientele includes Katrina Kaif, Deepika Padukone, Sakshi Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh; shares her meal plan for Yasmin Karachiwala — the personal fitness trainer for Bollywood and sports celebrities, who recovered from COVID-19 recently.
For strength and energy: Grind together soaked 10 gms black raisins; add 2 dates, handful rice puffs or oats, cumin seed, and a pinch of pink salt. Blend it with 250 ml water into a smooth paste. Serve with pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds. This can be had either as a breakfast or an evening snack. Due to medicines, one can face issues like acidity and this smoothie also helps in balancing the acidity level.
For lunch and dinner: healthy wholesome meals — jowar /amaranth roti with a bowl of water-based vegetables like bottle gourd, ridged gourd, pumpkin, etcSpiced buttermilk during the day: Make a tadka (temper it) of asafoetida, turmeric, curry leaves, ginger and pink salt. Pour buttermilk in it and stir. Turmeric milk/vegan milk at night.
Road to wellness
I contracted the COVID-19 virus on November 15, the very same day that actor Soumitra Chatterjee passed away. I completely lost my sense of smell and taste but yet forced myself to eat properly to ensure that the condition didn’t worsen. I increased my protein intake with two pieces of fish or a bowl of chicken for lunch and dinner, apart from eggs. Besides, twice a day I had mutton stew with carrots, papaya, beans and bell peppers for strength and immunity. I also had a lot of protein drinks like Proteinex along with Threptin biscuits.
When I was isolated, I always had a basket of fresh citrus fruits like oranges, sweet limes, apples and pomegranates which I ate at regular intervals. Besides, I had a kadha with tulsi, honey, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves and lemon juice. This regimen continued for two months till I recovered considerably. Recently, I had to cut down on portions since we are actors and need to check our weight. But with the resurgence of the pandemic, I have again started having them in good portions.
— National Award-winning actor Sudiptaa Chakraborty, Kolkata