It is necessary to strike the right balance when choosing foods Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: With this year’s Ramadan coming in the wake of the unprecedented COVID-19 outbreak, the question of nutrition and immunity are being widely discussed.

Can fasting impair one’s immune system’s response to fight infections and what kind of food groups does one need to include while ending the fast to ensure replenishment of lost nutrients? In times of the COVID 19 pandemic, it is vital to maintain an optimal immune strength, say dieticians.

Zeina Younes, Clinical Dietitian at the Dubai Diabetes Centre

Zeina Younes, Clinical Dietitian at the Dubai Diabetes Centre, said, “Our immune system is the innate defence ability of our body to fight back infections that may come from viruses, bacteria, fungi and other environmental toxins. We have some innate strengths and some are supplemented by the right nutrition.”

Younes said: “While several studies have indicated that fasting or cutting back on calories can actually enhance the activity of our T-cells and boost our immunity, it is important to get adequate nutrition when ending the fast.”

She added: “If those who fast during Ramadan consume diets that are high in bad fats and in sugar at suhour and iftar, they are most likely to deprive their body of balanced nutrition.”

Macro and micro nutrients

The body requires us to have adequate amounts of all the macro-nutrient groups like proteins, carbohydrates, fats and water, which are required for efficient metabolism. In addition the body needs adequate quantities of vitamins, enzymes, minerals and trace elements to build up an efficient warp and weft of a strong immune network.

Archana Baju, clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi

Archana Baju, clinical dietician at Burjeel Hospital Abu Dhabi, said, “In a recommended balanced diet, the proportions are well laid out. About 55 per cent of nutrition comes from carbohydrates, 25 per cent from proteins and 20 per cent from fats. When fasting, we need to keep the same proportion in mind and also focus on the quality and source of nutrition. For instance a donut and a plate of mixed stir fry vegetables with quinoa or brown rice might give you the same calories. But a donut is fried and high in sugar and poor in nutrition, has a very high glycaemic index (GI is the rate at which the glucose is absorbed in the body) and is very small in portion size. It will make you feel hungry again. Whereas a plate of complex, whole grain carbohydrate with vegetables which has a low glycaemic index and rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre will keep the blood sugar steady for longer, provide far greater nutrition and boost one’s immune system. Therefore it is important to select the right kinds of carbohydrates, proteins and fats in your diet.”

Striking a balance

For proteins, Baju recommend both plant and animal protein.

“Proteins are important for repair and regeneration of tissue and cells and while we focus on animal sources of protein, it is essential to include legumes, lentils and pulses in your diet and have one portion of plant-based protein in your diet at least once. Besides, in the case of plant-based proteins, one usually mixes them with a nutrient-dense carbohydrate like rice or whole grain bread and vegetables. So one gets a balance of nutrition in one dish. In case of animal protein, choose lean protein such as eggs, dairy, fish or chicken and have it grilled, pan fried or baked. Too much oil can destroy the nutritional element,” she added.

The human body derives its nutrition from fats in the oils and nuts we choose in our diet.

Baju said since the proportion of fat was only 20 per cent it was important to choose small portion of oils in cooking food and rotating the oils. “ My clients insist on going on zero fat diets. That is not desirable as a certain proportion of fat in our body is a shock absorber and required to digest many things. We must include nuts and seeds in our diet for source of healthy fats. In case of oils, we must choose from olive groundnut, sesame, mustard and other oils, but we must rotate these in our cooking for best results and also use small amounts only. Cold press oils are more nutritious as the refining process destroys the nutritive element in oil. However cold press oils cannot be used in deep frying and are used more for salad and sauce dressings. We use virgin cold pressed olive , avocado and coconut oil in dressings. These get oxidised quickly and turn rancid. So use oil sparingly and rotate them. “

Talking of micro nutrients that are required in trace amounts but derived from a combination of food sources to get the best result.

Younes added: “According to the American Dietetic Association, the human body must get adequate amounts of the vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D and E as well as Folate, Zinc and selenium in their diet. In addition to it, there is a need to maintain a healthy gut and for this one must have ample natural probiotics in the diet that we can get through fermented foods and yoghurt.”

‘My Plate’ recommendations

According to the “My Plate” recommendations made by the US Dietary Association (USDA), the ideal food plate must have ¼ portion of whole grain dense carbohydrate , ¼ portion of protein from a lean source , 1/4th cooked vegetable, ¼ raw vegetable like a salad or a fruit and a small portion of dairy like light laban or yoghurt. Keeping this combination in mind, Biju drew up a sample suhour and iftar menu

Tips to boost immunity during Ramadan

• Eat fresh foods everyday which includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, lentils, whole grains (wheat, brown rice, oats, corn, quinoa), milk products and lean protein choices (egg, chicken, fish, meat)

• Avoid all processed foods, packed foods loaded with salt and sugar

• Include lot of fruits and vegetables rich in Vitamin B, C, E, A and D

• Replace fried foods and sugary desserts with healthy alternatives. Adapt healthy cooking methods like steam, poach, bake, sauté, stir-fry etc

• Use minimal salt for cooking and instead add herbs, spices, lemon, garlic and other seasonings

• Trim off the visible fat from the meat, skinless chicken is best. Include good protein choices for Iftar and Suhour

• Don’t overcook the veggies as they tend to lose the nutrients, colour and flavour

• Drink lots of water. Choose low fat dairy, coconut water, herbal teas and soups for hydration

• Snack on fresh fruits, veggie salads, nuts

• Stay active whenever possible at home by taking small walks, climbing stairs, doing stretches etc

( Source : Archana Biju)