Managing NCDs through healthy diet and lifestyle to reduce severity of COVID-19

By Tan Ye Ting, Lee Zheng Yii
Malaysian Dietitians’ Association

Read in BM | Chinese

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are among the leading causes of death in many countries. According to the 2019 National Health and Morbidity Survey, NCDs have been rising steadily in Malaysia, drawing attention to our poor eating habits and lifestyle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the health of individuals with NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes or obesity, revealing how vulnerable they are. People with these health conditions are prone to severe or fatal complications from COVID-19. According to the Institute for Clinical Research, more than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Malaysia involved individuals who had at least one underlying health condition.

Restrictive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have presented a challenge to maintaining appropriate levels of physical activity, accessing healthy foods and proper medical care. In addition to following good hygiene measures, wearing a 3-ply face mask, washing your hands and practicing social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is important for people with NCDs to manage their health conditions in order to keep themselves in their best state of health. This article provides several important pointers to help such individuals with chronic conditions reduce the severity of complications of COVID-19 in the unfortunate event of infected by the virus.

1. Know your numbers and don’t skip your medications

Be extra careful about monitoring your personal health numbers, such as blood sugar, blood pressure or cholesterol levels. Don’t skip a dose or change your medications or treatment without first talking to your doctor. Continue to take your medications on time and as directed.

2. Eat a healthy diet recommended by your dietitian

Proper nutrition and hydration are even more vital during these times. Do your best to eat a variety of fresh and unprocessed foods every day to get the vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, protein and antioxidants your body needs.

The general healthy eating tips below may help to manage your health condition better. For more individualized recommendation, please seek advice from a qualified dietitian:

  • Healthy weight. If you are overweight or obese, losing as little as 5-10% of your current weight may help to optimize your blood sugar and blood pressure.
  • Spreading your 3 meals throughout the day to 4 or 5 smaller meals may help to better control your blood sugar.
  • Choose whole grains and eat at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Fiber contributes to a healthy digestive system and offers a prolonged feeling of fullness, which helps to prevent overeating. Whole grains foods include rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat bread and millet.
  • Aim for smaller portions and follow the Malaysia Healthy Plate at every meal.
  • Limit high fat foods and added fats. To achieve this, opt for cooking methods that require less or no fat, such as steaming, grilling or sauteing instead of frying foods. Choose small amounts of healthy fats such as olive oil or sunflower oil to cook foods. To limit saturated fats, trim excess fat from meat and poultry and choose skinless options. Avoid trans fats as much as possible. Read nutrition labels to ensure that partially hydrogenated oils are not listed in the ingredients. If food labels are not available, avoid or reduce foods which commonly contain trans fats such as processed foods, fried foods and baked goods.
  • Limit sweet foods and foods and drinks with added sugar. If you crave for something sweet, fresh fruit can be one of the best options. Frozen fruits and dried fruits with no added sugar are also good options. When dessert options are chosen, ensure that they are low in sugar and consume small portions. Watch out for low fat options, as these are often high in added sugars. Limit the amount of sugar or honey added to foods and beverages.
  • Choose and prepare foods with little or no added salt (sodium). Experiment with fresh or dried herbs and spices for added flavor instead.
  • Limit eating out and prepare home-cooked meals. Eat at home to reduce your rate of contact with other people and lower your chance of being exposed to COVID-19. Many healthy and delicious recipes can be found online. Get your family involved and adopt healthy cooking methods, so that you and your whole family can enjoy a healthy home-cooked meal.

3. Be active

Being physically active is important to improve your immunity. An easy way to start exercising is to walk for 30 minutes a day (or for three 10 minute sessions). You can also try yoga, zumba, run around and play with your children within your home compound, use the stairs more often or follow an online exercise class.

4. Visit your clinic for wellness checks

Given the current situation, where people have been advised to not to go to hospitals unless absolutely necessary, coupled with movement restrictions, the management of individuals with NCDs, may be affected. Try not to miss schedule appointments and contact your clinic if you notice any changes to your health. Talk to a doctor or dietitian to see if you can set up your medical visit on the phone or virtually. Keeping up with regular appointments now could prevent a visit to the emergency room later.

As individuals with NCDs are at greater risk of COVID-19 complications, it is important to remember no specific food or supplement will prevent you from catching COVID-19. Maintaining a well-balanced diet and healthy lifestyle can ensure a healthier immune system and reduce the risk of underlying conditions that worsen the outcome of the disease.

This article is contributed by Nutrition Month Malaysia (NMM) 2021, an annual community nutrition education initiative jointly organised by Nutrition Society of Malaysia (NSM), the Malaysian Dietitians’ Association (MDA) and the Malaysian Association for the Study of Obesity (MASO).