Healthy eating messages are gaining traction, as the public look for ways to boost their immunity to Covid-19.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.
Irish Heart Foundation dietitian Sarah Noone says it is a myth that you can boost your immune system through diet or supplements, and good hygiene and social distancing continue to be the best means of avoiding infection.
She has warned against peddling of misinformation around nutrition and the immune system, and notes that the European Food Safety Authority has not authorised any claim for a food or food component to be labelled as protecting against infection.
She says the only way to truly boost the immune system is through vaccination, but there isn’t a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus yet.
However, a diet that includes enough energy and a variety of nutrients, and lifestyle, are important for immune system support.
Most of us in Ireland need additional vitamin D, which mostly comes from sunshine, but is found naturally in oily fish and egg yolks, and is added to foods like fortified breakfast cereals, fortified milks and spreads.
Vitamin D supports bone health and the immune system.
So we should try to spend some time outdoors in the sunshine.
Getting enough sleep, avoiding too much alcohol, not smoking, and hand hygiene, also support your immune system.
Equally important are physical activity and stress management.
One of the most important dietary aspects for the immune system is to eat enough calories.
But putting yourself under pressure in an attempt to have the perfect diet only causes stress that can damage your immune system.
Despite this level-headed Irish Heart Foundation advice, many eminent doctors working against poor diet and obesity are taking advantage of the pandemic to sell their message.
British cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, who has long campaigned against sugary and ultra-processed food, scored a publicity coup recently when Barnet Hospital in north London went on social media to thank Krispy Kreme for delivering 1,500 doughnuts for staff.
Malhotra and other leading doctors, nutritionists, and dietitians condemned the hospital for advertising one of the ‘junk foods’ blamed for obesity, which they said is associated with poor coronavirus outcomes.
Dr Malhotra has called for public health messaging to be urgently updated in the light of Covid-19, to ensure people eat nutritious whole foods, in an attempt to reduce risk and subsequent death rates from the virus.
Malhotra said, “The general public need to be told immediately by official sources to cut out sugar, refined carbohydrates, and junk food, and switch to a whole food diet abundant in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy and plenty of protein from pulses, fish, meat, and eggs, to improve their health within weeks, to help protect themselves if they contract the novel coronavirus.”
He suggested the health message should be to “eat real food, protect the NHS, and save lives.”
Harley Street nutritionist Kimmy Pearson said, “Associations between our health status and the extent to which Covid-19 is likely to affect us are becoming increasingly apparent.
“While this is without doubt a very sensitive subject, which must be handled with care, the current pandemic highlights the very real fact that overlooking the seriousness of excess weight is costing lives.”
A switch to healthier diets is definitely in the air, at least in the UK, the single most important market for our food production.
And it could be beneficial for Irish food exporters.
Our beef exporters will be particularly conscious of the healthy food message in the UK, especially after a 2019 in which they saw a 15% fall in the value of beef exports to the UK, to €990m.
Export volumes, at 265,000 tonnes, were down 11%.
The UK still accounted for 47% of Irish beef exports, compared to 52% in 2018.
It wasn’t just Irish exporters who were hit.
Analysis by The Grocer magazine, the premier weekly magazine for the food and drink retail sector in the UK, indicated that three of the 10 fastest-falling products in their 2019 Top Products listings were meat products, with significant value and volume losses for beef, bacon and sausages.
The fresh meat category lost a staggering £184.6m of sales, it was estimated.
This was attributed to reduced consumer confidence, trading down to cheaper cuts, and unsuitable weather for barbecue meals, among other other factors.
The question now is could our meat industry do better, if consumers become more health-conscious.
Meat-free was one of the 10 fastest-growing categories in 2019; but how will that fare, with highly processed foods getting a black mark from whole food proponents such as Dr Malhotra?
The Grocer magazine said the fastest-growing food category in the UK in 2019 was chocolate, with sales growing by an estimated £183.5m (almost exactly matching the £184.6m loss of fresh meat sales).
Chocolate could lose out, in a move to healthier eating.
Next in the list of categories estimated to have the fastest-growing sales in 2019 were rolling tobacco, spirits, carbonated fizzy pop, and bagged snacks.
Their sales increased by a total of about £750m.
It is clear that if the UK turned to healthier eating (and gave up smoking, also associated with poor Covid-10 outcomes), big gaps could open up in the food and drinks market for products with a healthier image.
Also gaining sales were dairy-free brands, sports and energy drinks, lager, and the only proven healthy item, vegetables, with sales up £54m, attributed mainly to price inflation.
The data on last year’s winners and losers in the food and drinks market shows how fickle consumers can be.
It is possible they will have developed a completely new attitude to food and drink by the time the Covid-19 pandemic becomes manageable.
Ireland, with its healthy food production image, may be well placed to satisfy the demands of newly health-conscious consumers.