Since the spread of the COVID-19 global pandemic, health professionals, government officials, and health organisations worldwide have been imploring people to take precautionary measures to guard against the risks of the deadly virus. People with underlying health conditions, the elderly, and the immunocompromised appear most susceptible.
In the context of nutrition, Jamaicans were already facing an epidemic with obesity and non-communicable diseases pre-COVID-19. People with these diseases are experiencing more severe complications and outcomes after contracting the virus. From another perspective, more than 70 per cent of Jamaicans are already challenged with obtaining basic nourishment for health. Procurement of adequate food for storage and COVID-19 physical-distancing parameters are luxuries most are unlikely to be able to afford. For these reasons alone, nutrition must play a central role in our COVID-19 response strategy.
Reduced immunity can impair our defence against viruses, making us more susceptible and at risk for COVID-19. Currently, there is no evidence linking a specific food or supplement as being protective or curative. However, good diet quality and a healthy nutritional status are integral to maintaining a strong and functional immune system. Undoubtedly the mitigation strategies implemented for COVID-19 have made stark changes in our daily routine and are likely to have affected the way we normally eat. As we continue to adjust to the unfamiliar disruption, securing adequate and nutritious supplies should be prioritised.
Our most basic health requirements are to consume a nutritionally wholesome diet and sustain adequate physical activity. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and obesogenic drivers pervading our food and beverage environment. Recent media reports of long lines at fast-food restaurants, donations of unhealthy food and beverages, and bulk-buying of non-essential foods have unintended health consequences. Hopefully, these actions are transient since we risk submitting ourselves to an even greater threat of COVID-19 pathology and mortality.
Looking at the bigger picture, the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with a sustained economic downturn, poses serious threats to our food-supply systems. Food insecurity, increased poverty, and a resurgence of malnutrition are very real and pressing concerns. Having made significant gains in reducing childhood malnutrition, we must be careful to reduce barriers that limit access, availability, and affordability of nutritionally wholesome foods. Children who are dependent on daily school meals as their major (or sole) source of nutrition are highly vulnerable, with schools being closed. Several charitable contributions and government-led initiatives may provide a stop-gap solutions. However, we shall fail our children miserably if in attempting to resolve one issue, we expose them to more unhealthy food and beverages, thereby compounding their risks.
As the country reopens, we must remain vigilant with COVID-19 prevention. The Ministry of Health and Wellness continues to provide extensive communication setting out guidelines for physical distancing, wearing masks, and practising proper hygiene. According to UNICEF, the safeguards are to ensure good nutrition and clear communication on the importance of healthy and safe diets during the pandemic. This means limiting the consumption of high-calorie, poor-nutrient-quality foods, as well as protecting healthy food-supply chains. Additionally, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reminds us that maintaining a healthy diet helps to support our immune systems. As we endeavour to create a ‘new normal’, now more than ever, we must be socially responsible, especially to our most vulnerable. Our nutrition decisions should discern between suitable nourishment and that which may be cheaper but detrimental to long-term health.
What more can be done to improve nutrition outcomes during and after the pandemic? Generally, we should be mindful of everything we eat or drink. The most basic diet strategies are to avoid sugary drinks, high-salt foods, alcohol, ultra-processed foods, and, to exercise portion control. By selectively reducing intake of these unhealthy products, it limits consumption of excess calories, sodium, sugars, and unhealthy fats. Complementary strategies to improve your chances of meeting recommendations and increasing consumption of plant-based foods and reducing harmful fats are to:
• Drink water – eight or more cups is often recommended;
• Eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables daily;
• Include more whole foods such as peas and beans, starchy provisions (e.g. breadfruit, yam, green bananas) and whole grains (e.g. oats, corn, and bulgur);
• Aim for healthy fats and low-fat food or beverage options.
For some families, it is likely that COVID-19 resulted in more home-cooked meals. This is a key weight- and disease-management strategy as it can offer control with food-preparation methods, opportunities to explore healthier and economical options, and family time. Starting a backyard or patio garden can provide instant access to healthy foods and has economical and enjoyable benefits.
Maintaining an active lifestyle and getting sufficient rest are other essentials to health and well-being. We must be alert in recognising periods of extended inactivity as well as stress, fear, or anxiety. These can be overwhelming, with physical, mental, and social consequences and may require professional intervention and support.
It is incumbent on the Government and local health partners to protect the nutritional status of our citizens during this pandemic. COVID-19 provides an opportunity to critically examine our existing health, agricultural, and trade policies. However, we must be deliberate in our response and not overlook threats to our food and nutrition systems. Going forward, mutlilevel strategies are required to prevent hunger and malnutrition while also reducing the burden of obesity and the NCDs. Policies should aim to reduce access to unhealthy food while raising awareness about healthy eating and well-being. To fight COVID-19, we must invest in the health and well-being of Jamaicans and build resilience across all generations.
Dr Suzanne Soares-Wynter is a clinical nutritionist at the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR), The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to email@example.com.