Nutrients and gut health should be weapons against COVID-19 say nutrition experts

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Nutrition experts are highlighting the importance of nutrients and gut health as a key weapon against the effects of COVID-19 as part of the British Nutrition Foundations (BNF)’s virtual conference Nutrition and COVID-19.

The conference took place on Tuesday November 24th, and invited a series of speakers working in nutrition and science to share their insight into the emerging research that shows the vital role nutrition plays in both protecting against and reducing the severity of COVID-19.

In a talk titled ‘Obesity as a risk factor for COVID-19’  Prof Jason Halford, University of Leeds, presented evidence to show that people living with obesity have an increased risk of contracting the virus, hospitalisation, ICU admission and dying from COVID-19.

Bringing to life the perspectives of people living with obesity, Halford shared data from a survey conducted by the European Coalition for People Living with Obesity, which reveals that 73 percent of those surveyed are concerned about COVID-19 due to their weight. However, 43 percent have also been comfort or binge eating since the beginning of the pandemic; 60 percent are experiencing low levels of motivation; and 60 percent are struggling daily with their mental health.

Halford emphasised the negative impact that unusual life events – such as quarantine and being under lockdown at home – can have on weight gain and highlighted that many weight management services have been de-prioritised due to the pandemic. As such, Halford stressed that stigma around obesity, particularly on social media and in the press, is unhelpful in improving public health and, instead, strategies for supporting good mental health are needed to help the weight loss efforts of those living with obesity.

In a talk titled ‘Nutrition, immune function and COVID-19’, Prof Philip Calder, University of Southampton, explained that a well-functioning immune system is key to providing robust defence against infections such as COVID-19. Amongst the many nutrients that are needed for immunity, he highlighted vitamin D, zinc and selenium as being particularly important for anti-viral immunity.

Calder presented data suggesting that low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risk of COVID-19 infection, as well as hospitalisation, although he stressed that this is an association and so does not provide evidence of causation and that there is currently not enough data available to recommend vitamin D for prevention of COVID-19. Prof Susan Lanham-New, of University of Surrey, who reviewed the evidence on vitamin D, concurred but highlighted the importance of vitamin D for bones and muscles in the context of widespread low vitamin D status in the UK. Lanham-New emphasised that all members of the public should take the recommended daily vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms between October and March as a precaution to ensure good bone and muscle health.

Sara Stanner, Science Director, BNF, comments: “Scientific papers on emerging aspects of nutrition and COVID-19 continue to be published and one thing we can be certain of is that nutrition and maintaining a healthy body weight have important roles in keeping us healthy and, in turn, help us to protect against COVID-19 and the severity of associated illness. Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet, including foods from all the main food groups, is the best way to help ensure you get all of the nutrients you need for a healthy immune system. However, everyone should consider taking a vitamin D supplement especially during the winter months and also during the summer months if they are spending more time indoors than usual.

“This year we have all faced a plethora of new challenges, and mental health issues are often the silent symptom of this pandemic. It’s therefore important for us all to recognise that we are living through an extremely stressful time, not to be too hard on ourselves, to look for support in finding ways to manage stress and to eat as healthily as we can.”

A growing number of resources with information and advice on nutrients and gut health and COVID-19 can be found on the BNF’s website:

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