How to support your immune system during the coronavirus pandemic

Data from Google Trends has highlighted a profound rise in online searches around “immune boosting nutrients” since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic last year. From April to May 2020 the hashtag #immunebooster increased on Instagram posts by over 46% (Wagner et al 2020).

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has piqued consumer interest in supporting healthy immune systems, but a vast amount of often conflicting information online can leave people at a loss as to what actually works.

The idea of boosting your immunity is misleading and scientifically inaccurate, it’s better to think about how you can ‘support’ rather than ‘boost’ your immune system.

At the most basic level, the immune system functions better when protected from external environmental factors and when bolstered by healthy-living strategies like regular exercise, not smoking and a healthy diet.

Adopting a balanced diet, rich in nutrient-dense foods is one of the easiest ways to support immune systems. While this won’t prevent you from catching an infection, it will help your body deal with it more effectively.

Over the last decade, the health and wellness market has grown exponentially. As interests in optimising health have risen, so too have products, ingredients and individuals promising to help get us there. An option favoured by many is to introduce supplements to top up nutrient and vitamin intake – however, the impact of positive diet changes is likely to be longer-lasting if adopted as a regular habit.

It’s likely that your body will absorb more nutrients from whole foods than supplements and most people can get almost all the vitamins and minerals they need from a balanced diet. As the name suggests, supplements should only be taken to supplement or support a healthy diet.

Around 70 per cent of your immune system is found in your gut, so it’s important to feed your gut microbes. Including plenty of fibre-rich plant foods such as vegetables, wholegrains, beans and nuts will help keep your gut microbes happy.

These foods make perfect pairings to have with red meat – which provides essential, easily-absorbed nutrients all neatly packaged up. Red meat includes high-quality protein required to make immune cells and aid infection recovery and B-vitamins (B2, B3, B6, and B12).

Red meat such as beef and lamb are great sources of zinc, a mineral which helps produce new immune cells and cells that help fight off viruses. Pork is a source of selenium, which helps strengthen response to infection.

Some of these nutrients are more bioavailable in meat than plant foods, and intakes are found to be low among some groups of the population – especially iron intake in younger females.

Research also suggests that grass fed beef and lamb can contain more omega-3 which helps support an effective immune system, compared with grain-fed livestock.

While it can be difficult to reach the recommended daily intake of vitamin D through diet alone, the small amounts found in meat may make a difference to some, and components in meat may make it easier for the body to make use of it. The Government also recommends a daily vitamin D supplement.

Including lean, red meat two or three times a week in a varied, balanced diet can help you to obtain a range of key nutrients to support your health and immune system this winter. When you do cook with red meat, make sure it is from a trusted source meeting strict quality standards.

In Scotland, the red meat industry has a world-leading quality assurance scheme, with meat bearing the Scotch Beef PGI, Scotch Lamb PGI and Specially Selected Pork logos underpinned by uncompromisingly high standards.

For more information and nutritious recipes visit www.scotchkitchen.comDr Laura Wyness, Registered Nutritionist


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.