Importance of good dietary practices during pandemic | Sunday Observer

Importance of good dietary practices during pandemic

16 January, 2022

With the onslaught of a new variant of coronavirus named Omicron, the end of the coronavirus pandemic has become beyond prediction. Hence, the authorities make the public constantly aware of the importance of continuing to adhere to the health guidelines.

There is no specific cure or medicine for coronavirus disease. Vaccines and other prescribed supplements can only mitigate the intensity of the coronavirus disease, but can never cure it. Since the inception of this pandemic, global authorities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) placed high importance on the correct diets to enhance immunity as well as the overall health to fight the virus. Nourishing meals rich in variety of nutrients can keep people healthy and increase their resilience during stressful times like this.

Nevertheless, nutrient-rich diets alone cannot fight the coronavirus. It is true that diets play a vital and major role. Regular exercises, good sleep for 6-8 hours, maintaining sound mental health, adopting good habits and quitting habits that are injurious to health such as smoking and taking alcohol and adhering to the guidelines issued by the health authorities are equally important in fighting the battle against the coronavirus pandemic.


It is the immune system that defends the body against microbial threats such as viruses. This defence mechanism in the body is vital for the survival of humans. Hence, it is important to maintain the health and functionality of the immune system during the pandemic.

It can be observed that many people are changing their food habits to best fit the Covid-19 lifestyle. Due to the advancement of technology and widespread social media usage, people are more aware of the dietary practices to be adopted during such times. Consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean protein and whole grains in high variety and amount as well as cutting down on starchy and oily food, red meat, caffeine, refined sugars and alcohol are welcoming trends.

To increase the body’s resilience against the virus, micronutrients can play a significant role. Vitamins such as A, C, D and B vitamins such as B2, B6, B9 and B12 along with iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium and zinc help strengthen the immunity system.

Daily diets should include the above nutrients along with other macronutrients. It is recommended to incorporate five varieties of vegetables and fruits in a diet of a healthy person. This is a good practice to continue even during the pandemic. It is advisable to incorporate locally available and wild vegetables, leafy greens and fruits as they are neither genetically modified nor contain harmful chemicals or toxins. Apart from vegetables and fruits, cereals, pulses, seeds, nuts, dairy products, poultry, fish are a good source of essential nutrients.

Carbohydrate is important to provide energy for the body. Sri Lankans incorporate various types of starchy foods in their meals regularly such as rice, yams, bread, jackfruit, breadfruit and dishes made of wheat and finger millet flour.

A healthy person needs 0.8 grams (or 1g) of protein per kilogram of body weight. If a person’s weight is 50kg, he or she requires 5g of protein a day. Lean meat, milk, soy milk, and pulses are a rich source of protein.

It can also be observed that the intake of liquids increased during the pandemic. Hydration is vital for the proper functioning of the body. Due to the increased awareness of immunity-boosting drinks such as concocted coriander seeds and ginger, people tended to incorporate such drinks in their diets in increased frequencies that largely contribute to fulfilling the liquid requirements of the body.

In Sri Lankan ethnomedicine, such drinks are said to be rich in antioxidants and have the ability to enhance immunity. The traditional knowledge on such immunity-enhancing food and drinks has played a significant role in mitigating the intensity of the coronavirus disease in the people of Sri Lanka.

Traditional foods

Since good food and drinks play a big role in fighting the virus, exploring Sri Lankan traditional food options can be beneficial. The ingredients used in the preparation of traditional Sri Lankan food often have medicinal value that helps maintain health. In the traditional way of preparing food, ingredients are carefully chosen to fulfil the nutrient requirement as well as to prevent physical and psychological diseases while preserving the taste, aroma and colour of food. The food practices of the ancient people established harmony between nature and humans which increased their life expectancy and ability to fight diseases. Sri Lanka is an abode to the world’s finest spices which are rich in antioxidants, minerals and bioactive compounds that enhance immunity. In the traditional way of preparing meals, Sri Lankans incorporate a spice mix known as Thunapaha and cloves, cardamom, turmeric, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, curry leaves, pandan leaves, garcinia (Goraka), peppercorn, Kochch iMiris (Sri Lankan traditional chili varieties) and spring onions in curries which naturally help the functionality of the immune system.

Dishes prepared with traditional rice varieties such as Suvandel, Madathavalu, Pachcha Perumal, and Kurulu Thuda contain high nutrients in comparison to the imported varieties of rice. Ancient people used to consume a cup of herb gruel known as Kola Kenda in the morning, prior to their breakfast. Kola Kenda is made with extracts of leafy greens, traditional rice, ginger, garlic, curry leaves, pepper, lime juice and consumed along with Kitul jaggery. This is a food drink that also contributes to enhancing immunity.

The traditional Pol Sambolaya made of scraped coconut, spring onions, garlic, pepper, Kochchi Miris and tamarind too is a healthy accompaniment to cooked rice (traditional rice variety). Studies found that traditional Pol Sambolaya is said to have many medicinal and dietary benefits.

Dishes made of powdered finger millet such as Kurahan Thalapa with curried horse gram (Kollu Anama) as an accompaniment is a traditional dinner option with loads of health benefits. Kurahan Thalapa with Kollu Anama is not popular today unlike in the past.

Ancient medical literature states that Kollu or horse gram has the ability to mitigate breathing difficulties and is good for cold and cough. Hence, dishes made of horse gram can be recommended to be consumed by Covid-19 patients for a speedy recovery and to ease the difficulties. Horse gram also is a rich source of protein.

Ancient Sri Lankans ate yams such as cassava, purple yam, sweet potatoes and jackfruit and breadfruit with a curry, Pol Sambolaya or Lunu Miris as a meal. They are a good substitute for cooked rice.

Although the traditional ways of preparing food have been forgotten in the present day, getting back to that lifestyle yields many benefits in a pandemic situation like this.

Vicious cycle

However, the coronavirus pandemic has largely impacted the food purchasing and eating practices of some people. As the purchasing power decreases and food become less accessible, people have no option but to pare their diets down. It can also be observed that as the food prices jack up and people’s purchasing power decreases, variety and the amount of food in their diets too decreases drastically. Poor dietary practices may lead to malnutrition conditions such as undernutrition and ill health, decreasing the body’s ability to fight against infections.

The vicious cycle of low income or poverty, decreased variety and amount of food, malnutrition, weakened immunity system, susceptibility to illnesses continues amid the pandemic. A solution to this should be provided from the State-level, albeit it should not be forgotten that people have a responsibility too.

It is wise to procure food from our surroundings and in the wild as our ancestors had done. They hardly faced shortage of food nor felt under the weather unlike today’s generation.

Dr. Naveen De Soysa is the Assistant Secretary of the Government Medical Officers’ Association and the Registrar in Community Medicine at the National Institute of Health Sciences. Panchamee Hewavissenti is a culinary researcher and recipe creator