The reality of being exposed to the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, has set in and I am hearing a lot of questions that start with “What if…..” Usually it’s followed by some version of how to feed yourself if you get sick, which is a question that I love since food has a profound impact on how our bodies work! While the specific research on therapeutic foods for COVID-19 isn’t out there, I do have a lot of research that can help guide our food choices during illness and that I turn to anytime my family is unwell. Given what we know about how certain foods support our immune system or interact with our body and what COVID-19 does to our systems, it’s reasonable to extrapolate to what foods would be best during this particularly difficult viral infection.
Before we get into the details, I wanted to preface all this with the advice to prep some of this in advance. For example, I have a dozen quarts of bone broth in my freezer as well as garlic and lemons on hand at all times. There will be some things that you will need to make or have someone make for you if you fall ill, but there are many things that you could do in advance that will make this more doable if you need it in the future. And if you don’t get sick but a neighbor does, you can share the goodness!
Let’s start with the “What to avoid” list so that we can end on a more positive note as this may ruffle some feathers out there!
- Dairy products are congestive which means they increase the production of mucus in your nose, throat, and lungs. As you might expect, this is the last thing we want with any type of upper respiratory illness. Dairy includes milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. Because butter has a very small amount of the milk protein, it is often fine to keep eating. Alternative milks made from nuts and seeds are a great option.
- Raw Foods, from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, require more Qi to digest. Let’s reserve all of our Qi, or life force, for fighting the virus. For example, instead of eating an apple, choose applesauce.
- Cold Foods are similar to raw foods in their depletion of Qi, avoid them and reserve all your energy for mounting your immune response. Avoid eating anything straight out of the fridge, reheating to room temperature or higher before you enjoy.
- Refined Sugar suppresses your immune system via the inflammation that it causes when your body increases insulin in response to a spike in your blood sugar that results from the rapid absorption of refined sugar. Choose raw honey (in moderation) and other natural non-caloric sweeteners like xylitol, stevia, and monkfruit which also have anti-microbial properties.
- Refined Carbohydrates have a similar impact on your immune system as refined sugar and are best left out during illness. Refined carbohydrates show up in packaged foods like white bread, crackers, chips, and sweets. Choose whole grain versions of these to reduce inflammation caused by spikes in insulin.
Now, let’s talk about what we want to focus on eating when we are unwell so that we can provide optimal nutrition that will be the best support for our body’s natural virus-fighting capacities.
- Broth should be the staple of your diet during an illness as, when prepared correctly, it delivers an easily absorbed, nutrient dense, and usually very appealing foundational food. If you swing towards vegetarian or vegan, choose Rebecca Katz’s Magical Mineral Broth. If you include animal products in your diet, choose beef bone broth or go for a chicken bone broth version.
- Garlic Lemonade is a staple in our house at the first sign of a cold or flu. Garlic offers anti-viral support and the lemons provide vitamin C that when topped off with raw honey is soothing and warming. The recipe is quick and can be made in large batches to be reheated: In 1 quart glass jar, roughly chop 3 cloves of garlic. Pour boiling water over garlic, cover and let steep for 10 minutes. When still warm, add the juice of 1 lemon and raw honey to taste (2-3 Tbsps). Enjoy hot and often!
- Soups and Stews made from your delicious broth! As mentioned above, broth should be the foundation of your diet. While the broth can be enjoyed in a mug with seasoning, it can also serve as the foundation for soups. One of the things I love about soup is the versatility that you get from it. In general, you can create a great soup by taking your broth and adding 2-3 cups of any mixture of vegetable (fresh or frozen), 16 ounces of a good protein source (meat or beans) along with spices. If you are using bone broth, you don’t need additional protein since it has about 10 grams/cup. Here is a favorite immune boosting soup recipe that I turn to time and again from Mickey Trescott.
- Herbs and Spices are top nutrient dense foods that should play a big role in your diet during an illness. I will take any herb or spice that you favor and if you like ginger, then go heavy and go often! Ginger helps fight the inflammation that leads to many of the symptoms we feel. It’s a warming spice that encourages fluids to flow out of the body. Turmeric is a great herb to focus on as it helps combat the cytokine storm that COVD-19 sparks. Stock up on herbal teas that support your immune system andf contain herbs such as echinacea, astragalus, dill, green tea, chili pepper, olive, and oregano. Brands like Yogi Teas or Traditional Medicinals have great tasting combinations that make this easy.
- Mushrooms have immense value in your wellness-focused kitchen. Look for medicinal mushroom varieties that are high in beta-glucans such as shittake, lion’s mane, reishi, and chaga which have specific immune-enhancing properties. Include these in your soups and saute them with other vegetables or in an omelet. I find mine at my local farmer’s market as well as in the produce section of the grocery store. Six Sigmatic has several medicinal mushroom powders that you combine with non-dairy milk and water for a delicious and therapeutic way to boost your immune system.
- Last but certainly not least are my beloved Fruits and Vegetables which I hope are a main player in your regular diet but should certainly take center stage during illness.
Based on what we know about the mechanisms involved in the COVID-19 infection, pay particular attention to the following nutrients:
- Quercetin: Leafy greens, broccoli, red onion, peppers, apples, grapes, black tea, green tea, red wine
- Vitamin A: Beef liver, sweet potatoes, carrots, black eyed peas, spinach, broccoli
- Vitamin C: Guava, kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, oranges, papayas, broccoli, tomato, kale, grapefruit, persimmon, spinach, pineapple
- Vitamin D: Get some sunshine as this is hard to get through unfortified foods
- Vitamin E: Sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, spinach, butter squash, kiwi, broccoli, olive oil, trout, shrimp
- Selenium: Brazil nuts (need just 2/day), tuna, shellfish, eggs, sunflower seeds, and shiitake mushrooms
- Potassium: Spinach (cooked), broccoli, potatoes, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, peas, cucumbers, zucchini, eggplant, pumpkins, bananas, oranges, cantaloupe, honeydew, apricots, grapefruit
- Zinc: Oysters (best source by far), beef, crab, lobster, beans, cashews, almonds
- Protein: Taurine, carnosine, anserine, and creatine from animal foods like beef and lamb are particularly important, if you are not eating meat then consider supplementing with a full spectrum protein powder to make sure you are getting enough of these.
These are my highlights for immune supporting, anti-viral foods that will help you fight whatever comes your way. However, our most powerful action right in this moment comes from the small choices we make every day that prevent us from getting sick in the first place! Here is the cliff notes version:
- Sleep 8-10 hours per night.
- Exercise 30-60 minutes per day
- Meditate/pray/create stillness 10-30 minutes per day. In times like these, you may need to do this twice a day to feel more grounded.
- Connect with your loved ones in socially responsible ways (online, phone calls, letters)
- Choose a good preventative diet that is full of a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, ample clean protein, and healthy fats.
- Manage your exposure to the news- stay informed but set limits on how much you take in as it can have a very strong impact on your health and well-being.
Wishing you much health and joy in the coming weeks and months. May we all come out on the other side of this crisis with more compassion and self-knowledge such that we make the world a better, more just place.
Yours in health,
PS. Much of this information I pulled from the American Nutrition Association’s Practitioner Guide for COVID-19 which is an amazing resource put together by the best and brightest in our field. For public resources from ANA, check out https://theana.org/COVID19/ANAPublicResources.