Can your diet prevent Covid-19?

HSE Media Release: 07 May 2020

Simply put, you cannot "boost" your immune system through diet, and no specific food, supplement or fad diet can stop us getting COVID-19. As per public health guidelines good hygiene practices, coughing/respiratory etiquette, staying at home and social distancing remain the best ways of avoiding infection.

However, there are many nutrients involved in the normal functioning of the immune system, so we would encourage eating a healthy balanced diet in order to support your immune function. We do not recommend one food over another, but instead, encourage eating a variety of foods.  When it comes to nutrition, there are some areas that you could focus on to better support your immune system. First and foremost, it’s important to eat enough. Calories are needed to feed all systems in the body, including our immune system. If you are feeling sick and are finding it challenging to eat, it is important to ask your GP to refer you to a Community Dietitian. However, if you are not sick, it’s a good idea to avoid calorie-restricted diets during this pandemic.

Some specific nutrients which are worth focusing on to support a healthy immune system include:

  • Vitamin A: Which can be found in meat, dairy, eggs, liver (this should not be eaten if you are pregnant), plant oils and yellow/orange vegetables.                                                            
    B Vitamins: Vitamin B6 is found in pork, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, bread, whole cereals, potatoes, soya beans, peanuts, and fortified breakfast cereals.
    Vitamin B12, which is found in meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs and fortified breakfast cereals. Another B vitamin which will support the immune system is folate which can be found in cheese, bread, green vegetables, peas, beans, oranges, berries, nuts, seeds and fortified breakfast cereals.                                                                                                                              
  • Vitamin C: Despite Vitamin C supplements flying off the shelves it is just one of the key players in the immune system. Vitamin C can be found in a variety of fruit and vegetables including oranges, kiwi fruit, peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts and tomatoes.                     
  • Vitamin D: Our main source of vitamin D is from sunlight on our skin but important food sources include oily fish, cod liver oil (do not take if you are pregnant), eggs, margarine, fortified milk and fortified breakfast cereals. During autumn and winter months the sun is weaker and we spend less time outdoors, therefore adults and children over the age of one are advised to take a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms of vitamin D (Some babies less than one may also need a Vitamin D supplement, which you should discuss with your Pharmacist). As we are now in May you should try to spend some time outdoors in the sunshine.  However, if you are having to self-isolate or are unable to go outside, you should consider taking a daily supplement.                                                                                
  • Copper: is an important mineral for the immune system which can be found in meat, fish, shellfish, bread, wholegrain breakfast cereals, rice, peas, beans, avocado, dried fruit, nuts and seeds.
  • Iron: is also important and is found in red meat, poultry and fish. Plant sources (which are less easily absorbed by the body) include beans, nuts, dried fruit, wholegrains, fortified breakfast cereals and dark-green leafy vegetables.                                                       
  • Selenium: is found in nuts and seeds, particularly brazil nuts, cashews and sunflower seeds, as well as fish, meat and eggs.                                                                                                
    And Zinc: which is found in meat, poultry, shellfish, milk, cheese, whole grains and bread.

Finally, alcohol, especially heavy use of alcohol, weakens the immune system and reduces our body’s ability to cope with infection, including COVID-19 (see @ICAANnetwork)

When it comes to vitamin and mineral supplements, although it is tempting to stock up, there is no evidence that these can prevent COVID-19.  Remember eating a healthy balanced diet will provide you with all the nutrients you need to support your immune system during this time.

The HSE is reminding people not to delay seeking medical attention for non-COVID-19 Health issues.  If anyone has a medical problem, new symptoms or are concerned about their health, please ring your GP.  If it is an emergency, please ring 999 or 112 – please note that all acute hospitals have put in place stringent measures to protect patients and new pathways have been introduced in the Emergency Departments.

For information and advice on COVID-19 please visit www.hse.ie/coronavirus

Last updated on: 07 / 05 / 2020