While we are still struggling with NCDs, we are now faced with another health threat in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, that has had profound impact on all aspects of human life. Its effects can be particularly felt by people with NCDs. It has been well established that people with NCDs are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus infection due to their underlying chronic health conditions. Overweight and obese individuals and patients with hypertension and diabetes are known to have a substantially higher risk of becoming severely ill and are also more likely to die from COVID-19.
What is even more worrying is that the true extent of the people at risk of severe COVID-19 infection may be higher, as Malaysia already has a high burden of overweight and obesity before the pandemic hit us, i.e. 1 in 2 Malaysians were overweight or obese. In addition, many Malaysians are unaware that they have undiagnosed NCD risk factors such as high blood sugar and hypertension.
Restrictive measures such as lockdowns could also potentially mean that more people will be exposed to worsening NCD risk factors as their dietary pattern may be adversely affected and their physical activity curtailed. It is also feared that the widespread outbreak of COVID-19 will interfere with people with NCDs and risk factors from continuing with their medical treatment.
Thus, while much of our attention has been on COVID-19 in the past months, we must not overlook the need to pay attention to preventing and controlling NCDs, as they are both interconnected. When we manage to contain COVID-19 in the near future, the battle against NCDs must continue as these have been proven to be long-term health threats that affect large segments of the population.
Adopting healthy nutrition is the way towards combating both of these health threats.
The importance of healthy nutrition
NCDs are ‘lifestyle’ diseases as the majority of risk factors are lifestyle-related, the main ones being unhealthy diet and sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, being able to achieve good nutrition through a healthy diet will play a key role in the prevention of NCDs.
It is also imperative to make greater effort to practise healthy nutrition during this pandemic. Healthy nutrition is the key to supporting an immune system that is able to prevent, fight and recover from the coronavirus that may have invaded our body.
So how can we achieve good nutrition to prevent NCDs and to support a healthy immune system? Here are a few simple steps:
This refers to the principles of Balance, Moderation, and Variety. What it means is that one should have balanced meals that contain a variety of foods from the key food groups, consume these meals in moderate amounts so as not to overeat, and to choose a variety of different food types from each food group. Remember, no one single food or supplement can provide complete nutrition to meet our daily needs.
- Adopt healthy cooking practices to prepare healthier meals for your family.
Select and use healthier ingredients (e.g. plenty of fruits & vegetables, whole grains, and lean meat) and using healthy cooking methods, with use less oil (e.g. steaming, stewing, stir-frying).
- Be sensible when using salt, sugar and fat.
You don’t have to completely eliminate them from your diet but do make an effort to consume less of these. When cooking and preparing food, limit the amount of salt and high sodium seasonings/condiments such as soya sauce, fish sauce, ketchup. Avoid processed meats as they are high in fat and salt. Limit your intake of sugar sweetened beverages and desserts.
- Eat more fruits & veggies and other plant-based foods.
These should be a part of your daily diet as they provide important vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytonutrients. All these nutrients are helpful in the prevention of NCDs and are important in supporting a healthy immune system.
- Consume milk every day.
It is a wholesome food with protein and micronutrients needed to support immune health and helps build muscle, bones and teeth.
- Include probiotic-rich foods.
You should include functional foods that contain probiotics as they contain beneficial bacteria that promote good gut health by maintaining a healthy balance of gut microbiota, thus supporting our immune system. Examples of probiotic-rich foods include cultured milk drinks and yoghurt, or fermented foods such as, kimchi, sauerkraut, homemade yoghurt, tapai pulut, tapai ubi and natto.
- Stay hydrated.
Drink between 6-8 glasses of water a day. It is recommended to drink more plain water and less sweetened beverages because excessive consumption of sweetened beverages will lead to weight gain, thus increasing the risk of overweight/obesity over time. Since plain water is calorie-free, it is the best thirst-quencher.
- Be physically active.
Regular physical activity has a positive effect on reducing risk to NCDs as well as reducing hospitalisation and death among COVID-19 patients. Even simple physical activities are beneficial. You can start with light or moderate intensity activities over short periods of time that are spread out throughout the week. This can consist of simple routines such as brisk walking around/nearby house compound, or indoor exercises such as stationary bike, yoga, tai chi exercises, and light stretching exercises.
- Stay positive.
Stress can affect our overall health and wellbeing, thus it is important to find positive ways to manage stress, such as having enough sleep, taking a break from your day-to-day routine, and indulging in relaxing hobbies.
Make fighting NCDs and COVID-19 a priority
Both NCDs and the COVID-19 pandemic are threatening our health and wellbeing. There is no magic bullet or short cut to fighting NCDs; there is no single food or supplement that can prevent coronavirus infection. It is through eating a healthy diet, along with other positive health behaviours that we will be able to prevent NCDs (thus reducing the risk of severe COVID-19 complications). This will also strengthen our immune system’s ability to fight infections.
Healthy nutrition is the way to fighting both health threats.