College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Extended Learning Webinar Explores Immunity, Nutrition and COVID-19

How nutrition is linked to immunity and the healthy choices individuals can make in the shadow of COVID-19 were outlined in the first of a series of webinars hosted by UKZN’s Extended Learning (UEL) Unit on topics related to nutrition.

The presentation was made by Professor Suna Kassier of UKZN’s Discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition.

Kassier, a registered Dietician, Associate Professor, and Academic Leader of Teaching and Learning in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, has focused her research on obesity, infant and young child nutrition, food security, and non-communicable diseases of lifestyle. She is passionate about communicating scientific information to members of the public.

‘The whole concept of what can be done to address immunity under the current circumstances of the pandemic has received a lot of attention, so from a nutritional perspective I’m hoping to give you some insights as to what the current body of knowledge is and whether diet can in fact influence your immunity in this kind of pandemic,’ said Kassier.

Her presentation covered definitions of health and immunity, and she explained that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, being novel to the human body, left people unable to adequately fight off the disease without falling ill.

Kassier explained functioning and disorders of the immune system, and noted that factors such as inadequate sleep and aging also affected the strength of the immune system.

She mentioned factors that leave elderly patients more at risk, saying that 33% of elderly people in industrialised countries have nutrient deficiencies, likely to be considerably higher in South Africa, and emphasised the need to support older, more vulnerable members of society.

Speaking on the role of diet, Kassier noted that there was a lack of evidence regarding specific dietary factors that could reduce the risk of acute infections such as COVID-19, but that eating healthily, being active, managing stress, and getting enough sleep were critical for a strong immune system, with malnourishment resulting in greater risk of infections.

Kassier explained the roles of free radicals and antioxidants, recommending a diet containing foods rich in phytochemicals and encouraging consumption of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables to boost antioxidant intake.

‘Mindset is also vital to getting through this pandemic physically and mentally healthy, so think positively,’ she suggested.

Kassier addressed the value of supplementation and common misconceptions about supplements, and importantly gave guidance on how to spot myths related to COVID-19, such as the use of garlic to treat the disease.

‘If there is a medical breakthrough, you will hear of this breakthrough through announcements from reputable organisations, such as the National Department of Health in South Africa, or the World Health Organization (WHO).’

Kassier suggested several reliable sources of information, including the COVID-19 South African Resource Portal, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, and WHO.

‘From a dietary perspective, the loss of smell in COVID-19 patients is one aspect that has stood out,’ said Kassier.

‘Remember that when you have a viral infection, your nutrient needs are actually increased, irrespective of the origin of the virus,’ said Kassier.

UEL’s Marketing and Communications Manager, Ms Sarah Haffenden noted that UEL was offering webinars in support of and in compliance with the directive of the national lockdown to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘We are embracing the changes and have launched a number of projects aimed at providing free access to learning materials during this lockdown period, one of which is our online learning webinars,’ said Haffenden.

UEL’s webinars will continue on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout May and June.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied