Why ‘junk food stockpiling’ may worsen COVID-19 (Coronavirus) infection risk

by The Health Sciences Academy — Get free science updates here.

The past few days I’ve been asked a lot about food stockpiling…

What’s the right way to do it? Which foods? How much?

With more than a third of UK shoppers panic-buying in case of a major coronavirus outbreak, I’m afraid people aren’t making the best purchase decisions.

To make things worse…

So-called ‘doomsday preppers’ are giving all kinds of risky apocalypse-like food advice.

But raiding the stores and filling our carts with junk food and drinks can backfire and have a detrimental effect on our biological ability to fight infectious diseases.

Long shelf-life and non-perishability doesn’t mean safe or risk-free.

Junk ‘doomsday’ stockpiled items include:

  • canned meat/fish > exorbitant salt content
  • canned soups/pasta/beans/vegs > exorbitant salt content
  • canned fruit > exorbitant sugar from the added syrup
  • canned rice pudding/curd > high sugar, high fat, preservatives
  • biscuits and sweets > high sugar, high fat (trans), extremely low in essential micronutrients / vitamins
  • crisps > high fat (trans), high salt content, extremely low in essential micronutrients / vitamins
  • salted nuts > high fat, high salt content
  • fizzy drinks > high sugar, low in essential vitamins
  • fried frozen food > high fat (trans), high salt, low essential nutrients
  • syrups and jam > high sugar, preservatives
  • cured meats (beef jerky, salami, pâté) > exorbitant salt and fat (trans) content
  • instant powder soups > exorbitant salt content
  • energy bars and protein bars > high sugar, high fat
  • sugary cereals and instant porridge > high sugar

The health cost of ‘junk stockpiling’

The foods we eat have a tremendous impact on our immune system.

Imagine suddenly introducing all of the above ‘doomsday’ foods into our diets at once…

This could make us sicker – not just from indigestion, but also from a sudden detrimental alteration of our gut microbiome:

A diverse, balanced microbial garden is key to our immunity and ability to fight infection.

Those of us with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, low immunity, or already fighting an infection are at a higher risk of COVID-19 mortality.

Sad but true.

Junk eating worsens these conditions – and the consequences could be fatal.

So, I see an opportunity here:

There’s never been a better time for optimising our diets.

So, WHAT and HOW should we stockpile to ‘survive’?

Our immune system requires plenty of essential micronutrients.

If our diet is poor, we are more likely to catch a cold or an infectious disease.

To mitigate our risk of COVID-19 contagion from a nutritional management perspective, the immediate goal is two-fold:

  • to boost our intake of macro- and micro-nutrients that support the immune system and minimise deficiency risk – in particular vitamins C, D and A and minerals like zinc and iron
  • to minimise our intake of junk food or foods that are calorie-rich but incredibly low in essential micronutrients

Upping our intake of fresh produce like fruits, vegetables, herbs, pulses, and seeds is helpful and still possible in the current state of our supply chain in the UK.

That’s where the focus should be – even if it means also buying frozen vegetables, which often contain a higher vitamin content than vegetables on the shelves.

Freezing vegetables ‘locks in’ precious micronutrients and antioxidants during the storage period, including vitamin C needed for immune protection.

There is a misconception that frozen vegetables aren’t nutritious.

This is far from the truth.

Even when fresh vegetables reach the supermarket shelves, and subsequently your home, they are still degrading; not only nutritionally, but also in flavour, texture, colour, and appearance.

In fact, we know that spinach loses all of its vitamin C when stored at room temperature for just 4 days.

Broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, spinach, Brussels sprouts, broad beans, peas, corn, chopped onions, carrots – most supermarkets sell these nutrient-packed, preservative-free frozen vegetables.

Then how should we manage our home food supplies?

In the event of a mass COVID-19 outbreak and a broken supply chain, shortages of fresh produce will have detrimental effect on our health.

In previous natural disasters it’s been recorded that a lower intake frequency of green vegetables resulted in a greater number of colds and coughs.

But in the “contain” and “delay” phases, families are still in charge of what and where they buy, while supermarkets may impose restrictions to manage shortages.

This is the time to focus on strengthening the nutritional value of your diet and ‘feed your immune system’ so to say, in particular:

  • Essential vitamins like vitamins C (e.g. frozen broccoli, frozen mixed peppers), D (e.g. from eggs, cottage cheese, frozen salmon fillets), and A (e.g. beta-carotene from frozen carrots)
  • Essential minerals like magnesium (e.g. from seeds like pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds), iron (e.g. from raisins, prunes, dates, almonds, dried parsley), and zinc (e.g. from ginger root, Brazil nuts, pecan nuts, split peas, egg yolks, and whole-wheat grain, rye, and oats)
  • Prebiotics (foods containing these include garlic powder, steel-cut unsweetened oats, quinoa, beans, bananas, and apples)
  • Probiotics (from fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, miso, and tempeh)

And if these aren’t properly available in food form, it’s time to start considering supplementation – in particular vitamin C (I’m currently taking 3 grams daily and advising my family and friends to do so too).

Making your food storage plan

There are different nutritional needs to help prevent infection AND deal with infection.

While nutritional management and food availability during this pandemic will become increasingly challenging, the best you can do right now is to focus on prevention and strengthen your natural defences with a nutrient-rich diet – even if that means stocking nutritious items like frozen vegs, seeds, dried beans, and dried herbs.

Rather than raiding the canned foods and crisps aisles, let’s shift our attention on how we can eat for a stronger immunity.

Get your downloadable PDF guide

Click here to download your Survival Stockpiling Guide PDF with some critical dos and don’ts, so you can help your family and clients with a SAFE food storage plan.

Alex Ruani

Chief Science Educator at The Health Sciences Academy and Doctoral Researcher on Nutrition Science Education at University College London