A dietitian's guide on what to eat when you have COVID

Dose up: Vitamin C is found in high concentrations in tomatoes.
Dose up: Vitamin C is found in high concentrations in tomatoes. Photo: Katrina Meynink

As we roll into 2022 and a new wave of the pandemic, the reality is that you or someone you know will mostly likely have COVID. 

With symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to headaches, sore throats and digestive disturbance, should you be one of the thousands contracting COVID on a daily basis, it makes sense to explore proven dietary strategies to help minimise the symptoms being experienced.

So, before you log onto your favourite home delivery app or drown your isolating sorrows in wine and chocolate, here are some key foods and nutrients to focus on during recovery that will help your body fight the virus. 

Bump up your vitamin C

Despite there being a very active market for superfoods and supplements that claim to boost immune function and reduce the symptoms of colds and flu, the scientific reality is that very few foods are proven to give real results. One exception to this is vitamin C, for which there is good reason to bump up your intake. This natural antioxidant plays key roles in reducing the inflammatory response of the immune system, and in keeping developing immune cells healthy. Vitamin C is found in high concentrations in citrus fruits, kiwifruit, berries, tomatoes, red capsicum and leafy greens. While the recommended daily intake is just 40 milligrams, more research is being conducted on the benefits of much higher intakes, both orally and intravenously. The results of this research are yet to be translated into specific evidence-based recommendations however increasing your intake to 80-100 milligrams a day by including a vitamin C-rich food at every meal and snack – think half a cup of berries or red capsicum, kiwifruit or orange – is an easy way to significantly increase your intake and reap any potential benefits. Even better, Aussie Kakadu plums (if you can track them down) contain the highest levels of vitamin C found in a natural food, with 100 grams of these special fruits offering 100 times the amount of vitamin C you will find in an orange.

Arabella Forge's cold-busting chicken soup.

Arabella Forge's comforting chicken soup. Photo: Eddie Jim

Smart fluids

Dehydration is a common presentation in those with COVID, so keeping well hydrated is crucial in your recovery efforts. This is particularly important for those who have lost their sense of taste and smell, and as such have significantly reduced their oral intake in general. In such cases, nutrient-rich liquid meals including fruit smoothies, vegetable juices, soups made with a bone broth base and electrolyte drinks can play a crucial role in both nutrient delivery and supporting hydration. At a minimum, adults need 35-45 millilitres of fluid per kilogram of body weight per day, or roughly 2 litres a day. As a more general guide, if your urine is yellow, you are not drinking enough, especially if you are unwell.

***EMBARGOED FOR GOOD WEEKEND, FEBRUARY 15/20 ISSUE***
Karen Martini recipe : Seared Scotch Fillet with Mozzarella, peas and cherry tomatoes
Photograph by William Meppem (photographer on contract, no restrictions) 

Karen Martini's seared scotch fillet with mozzarella, pea and tomato salad. Photo: William Meppem

Advertisement

Nutrient-rich protein

When you are feeling especially unwell, it's unlikely you'll feel like tucking into a big steak. As you move through your recovery, however, focusing on foods rich in zinc is not a bad idea. Zinc is regularly associated with immune function and appears to have antiviral activity, and with Australian soil especially low in zinc, it is not uncommon for us to eat far less of this essential nutrient than we need for optimal health. Found in highest concentrations in lean red meat and oysters, zinc can also be found in shellfish, legumes, nuts and seeds (pumpkin seeds especially). So, once you feel like eating again, indulging in a little more seafood and adding in a daily snack or two of nuts and seeds is an easy way to boost your intake of zinc.

Photograph by William Meppem / SL food, April 10 : Adam Liaw recipe - Rainbow salad.
SLIFE160410 William Meppem – Wed, 15. November 2017 10:32 AM994152945.jpgPhotograph by William Meppem / SL food, April 10 : Adam Liaw recipe - Rainbow salad. SLIFE160410

Adam Liaw's rainbow salad is packed with plant nutrients. Photo: William Meppem

The more plants the better

As we learn more about the immune system, the more we come to understand about how integral our gut microbiome is to regulating immune function in the body. One of the easiest ways to support the health of the microbiome is to eat more plant foods. Ideally, you should eat at least 30 different varieties each week to keep your microbiome varied and working optimally. Indeed, early COVID research has already indicated that individuals who follow plant-based and pescatarian diets appear to have some protection against the development of severe symptoms thanks to lower levels of inflammation in the body. For those with COVID, this means that focusing on natural, plant-based food is crucial, as is avoiding home-delivered fast food. Even better, add in a probiotic such as plain yoghurt with cultures, kefir or fermented vegetables daily for a smart, extra nutrient boost for your gut microbiome.

Susie Burrell is an accredited practising dietitian