Debunking Myths About "Boosting" Immunity For A Pandemic


Not too long ago, we published an article offering suggestions on how to strengthen your immunity during the Coronavirus pandemic. The wording for this article was purposefully chosen -- we know from heeding science that "boosting immunity for a pandemic" is a false claim. On the other hand, a choice for a healthier diet, staying in touch with family and friends during the lockdown, and performing an act of service by baking and cooking are all valid examples of ways to strengthen one's immunity during this time.

The difference goes beyond semantics. "Boosting immunity for a pandemic" may make it sound like you can super-charge your immune defence and fight the Coronavirus simply by popping a magic pill or munching on a super food. To be immune is to be resistant to a particular infection. 

We will bust the myth head-on: There is no such thing as a boosted immunity. 

Unfortunately, a lot of consumers have fallen to the frenzy of the "pandemics pantry." Aside from hoarding supplies like face masks, alcohol and food, people also went panic-buying food supplements like Vitamin C, D, and Zinc, especially after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. 

In February, the Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has cautioned the public against health products sold locally or online that claim to prevent or treat Covid-19. Health supplements, herbs and “clip-on” products that are claiming to prevent or treat COVID-19 have proliferated the market at that time.

The HSA said, "Currently no evidence that any health supplement, Chinese proprietary medicine, traditional medicine, herb or “clip-on” product can boost the immune system specifically to help prevent, protect against or treat COVID-19." It added that scientific claims that these products could kill viruses, including the Coronavirus, cannot be verified.

To clear some air, we've asked Palate Sensations Culinary School's guest chef and dietitian Leonard Yap in Kuala Lumpur to bust myths about boosting immunity for a pandemic. 

Watch the video he prepared or read his interview below:

Q: What do people need to understand about products that claim to boost immunity for a pandemic?

Chef Leonard Yap

A: To really get a handle on the situation, people need to understand that clinically, immunity in the body is an amalgamation of many systems in the body, and for a company or party to claim a particular supplement "boosts" the immunity because it strengthens one out of several complex components in the immunity system, is not clinically accurate or correct.

That is, vitamin D Boosts immunity because it increases white blood cell count when there's no context if you're deficient of vitamin D or white blood cell count in the first place; it is akin to saying that to boost the success of a restaurant, we should just add an extra 10 chefs with no context of whether there's enough capacity for those chefs, and whether there is sufficient demand or need for those chefs.

Q: Is there a basis for doctors prescribing food supplements to boost immunity especially at this time?

When doctors prescribe multivitamins, it is after assessing that a patient has a deficiency for some of these vitamins.

In that sense, to really boost one's immunity, similar to the restaurant analogy, one has to assess whether is there any lacking to support the current demand, for example, if after a review of a restaurant, that the issue is a lack of tables to support the customer demand, one should increase the seating capacity and not just add on extra chefs. Similarly, our peak immunity performs when there's no deficiency in our nutrition first and foremost and if we have sufficient physical activity. 

3. What can people do to strengthen their immunity during Covid-19?

A: With that said, here's what the clinical evidence suggests:

1) Aim for a balanced meal with minimally processed foods, more whole foods, fruits and veggies.

Photo by Ola Mishchenko on Unsplash

Photo by Ola Mishchenko on Unsplash

During this time, many will be tempted and dependent on easy to prepare, fast foods or highly processed meals like instant noodles, these provide minimal amount of nutrition for the same amount of calories.
When having whole foods like brown rice, whole meal bread, quinoa, vegetables, you get a high nutrition bundle for the same amount of calories; this nutrition is much better absorbed as compared to supplements in the body.

2) Portion your meals
Do not over-eat, a simple guideline is 1 quarter carbohydrates (whole or high fiber preferentially), 1 quarter protein (plant protein and lean protein should be regular staples), and 1/2 or more of fruits and vegetables (more emphasis on vegetables).
Eat until you're about 80% full and take your time, do not rush.
Rushing your meals can lead to over-eating; and while you may have more nutrition per see by eating more, the excess calories alongside a sedentary lifestyle will cause weight gain, which can dampen your body's natural immune response.

3) Have some exercise

It most likely is suffice to say that exercising this time can be rather difficult. But try to incorporate some body weight or resistance exercise when possible.
If not in a sick or ill condition, resistance training or exercise can increase your body's immune response.
Having 20-30 minutes of an exercise a day is ideal, but try to do it at least 3x per week.

4) Supplement only when necessary.
Before you click "add to cart", ask yourself, are you deficient? 

If you've already been portioning and eating a lot of whole foods, chances are you have sufficient nutrition.
However in times like this with the pandemic, it's likely that you may not have sufficient sunlight exposure, but instead of dosing with more vitamin D, just try to get some sunlight from the working out nearest to your sunlight source if possible.
If you want to be of the safe side however, a multivitamin would do.
And no, there's no clinical evidence that supports consumption of turmeric, ginger, and many others that it would increase your immune response. It doesn't mean that you can't take it, if you enjoy it, go ahead, but do not douse yourself in heaps of it just because you read an article that it may help, especially if you don't enjoy it.

Palate Sensations Culinary School's Guest Chef and Dietitian Leonard Yap is based in Kuala Lumpur. He will come to Singapore to conduct classes when we can all safely travel again! 

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