Extended Learning Webinar Explores Immunity, Nutrition and COVID-19

15th May 2020

UKZN Extended Learning

– by Christine Cuénod*

In the first in a series of webinars hosted by UKZN Extended Learning (UEL) on topics related to nutrition, Professor Suna Kassier from UKZN’s discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition addressed how nutrition is linked to immunity and outlined healthy choices that individuals can make in the COVID-19 era.

UEL’s Marketing and Communications Manager Ms Sarah Haffenden noted that UEL is 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.

Kassier, a registered dietitian, Associate Professor, and Academic Leader of Teaching and Learning in the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, has focused her research on non-communicable diseases of lifestyle, obesity, infant and young child nutrition, and food security. 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, leaves people unable to adequately fight it off without falling ill.

Kassier explained immune system functioning and disorders, and noted that factors such as inadequate sleep and aging also affect 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 of the role of diet, Kassier noted that there is a lack of evidence regarding specific dietary factors that can reduce the risk of acute infections like COVID-19, but that eating a healthy diet, being active, managing stress, and getting enough sleep are critical to 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 provided several reliable sources of information, such as the COVID-19 South African Resource Portal, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, the WHO and more.

“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 webinars will continue on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout May and June.

*Christine is from the PR Office at the College of Agriculture, Engineering & Science, at UKZN.