OPINION | Chronic diseases, immunity and nutrition. Nutrition is important now more than ever! – Health24

Posted: October 28, 2020 at 3:55 pm

We have reached Lockdown level 1, which is a great relief as the economy can slowly recover, more people can go back to work and we can regain a sense of normality in our daily lives while taking the correct precautions of course.

However, it seems that many people have let their guard down. People are out and about without masks, not washing their hands or rigorously sanitising, and not practising physical distancing. This is a recipe for disaster and new infections. We should at all costs try to prevent the second wave of infections.

Now is not the time to be complacent. It is important that you follow the basic rules of hygiene and physical distancing, and improve your nutritional intake to help improve your immunity, especially if you have a chronic disease.

Studies on Covid-19 from around the world have shown that patients who have died tended to have comorbidities such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and cancer. Obesity has also increased the severity of the infections, with many obese patients being hospitalised in intensive care units.

Even more concerning is that these chronic diseases and inflammation increase with age, which is why the elderly are so much at risk.

The South African Demographic and Health Survey (SADHS), completed in 2016, has shown shocking statistics in relation to obesity and chronic diseases. They found 68% of men and 31% of women to be overweight and obese, with 20% of women and 3% of men being severely obese. Hypertension is present in 46% of women and 44% of men.

Diabetes is the second, and cardiovascular disease the fourth leading cause of death in South Africa. Chronic diseases are, therefore, a huge concern for the health system in South Africa, and the prevalence of these conditions is increasing at an alarming rate.

Obesity is a chronic inflammatory state and is linked to many chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, kidney disease and cancers. Even if you are not obese, any chronic disease has underlying inflammation associated with it. It is due to this inflammation that diseases are termed chronic.

Chronic inflammation is linked to many alterations in the immune system, which must always be alert to the invasion of organisms that may harm the body. The immune system consists of many cells which all have different roles to play to ensure proper immune functioning. Most of the immune cells in the human body are found in the gut. When we ingest food, we expose ourselves to near-constant immune responses, and our immune system must provide protection against invasive pathogens, while still tolerating food proteins and bacteria that are already present.

Nutrition is very important to ensure the proper functioning of the immune system. Many nutrients have specific roles to play in the development and maintenance of an effective immune system and preventing chronic inflammation. The Western diet is a known risk factor for chronic inflammation, and is characterised by a high intake of sugar, trans and saturated fats and salt, while being low in fibre, fruits and vegetables, bioactive compounds, polyphenols and healthier fats, including omega 3s.

In contrast, a Mediterranean diet is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. This diet is rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole-grains, low-fat dairy, fish, olives, and olive oil. Although red wine is also a feature of this diet, it is not risk-free and should be used cautiously especially in the presence of chronic disease conditions and obesity.

What also needs to be considered in these challenging Covid times is the fact that many people have lost their jobs and have limited food availability. Although processed food may offer a quick and cheaper option, it should be avoided due to its high fat, salt, sugar and additive content.

To improve your nutrition, follow the following tips to ensure a natural and healthy diet:

Zarina Ebrahim is a registered dietitian and lecturer at the Division Human Nutrition, Department Global Health, at Stellenbosch University.

Zarina Ebrahim

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OPINION | Chronic diseases, immunity and nutrition. Nutrition is important now more than ever! - Health24

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