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Want a good immune system? Eat your veggies…and then some

By Lara Pickford-Gordon

There is the view that eating fruits and vegetables to build up a healthy immune system can prevent Covid-19. A good immune system is part of combatting infectious diseases and non-communicable disease, but it’s not enough.

“We know, infectious diseases such as Covid-19, you still have to maintain your distance, sanitise, wash hands and then with the vaccine drive, which has proven successful so far, taking those kinds of precautions on top of healthy eating is recommended,” said dietitian for the past eight years, Cherice Bronte-Tinkew.  She is a member of the Board of Nutritionists and Dietitians and Vice President for Trinidad and Tobago Association of Nutritionists and Dietitians.

Bronte-Tinkew is the owner of Just Cher Nutrition, a private online nutrition practice.

She told the Catholic News via email, “I have a passion for what I do, and I wish to help as many persons live healthier lives with evidence-based nutrition”.

In an interview September 23, she discussed nutrition for a healthy immune system.

According to a 2016 country report by WHO/PAHO for ‘Health in the Americas’: “Heart disease is the highest-ranking cause of death in Trinidad and Tobago, accounting for 25% of all deaths annually. High prevalence rates of diabetes mellitus and hypertension (each accounting for approximately 12% of deaths) are contributing factors, along with overweight/obesity and lack of regular exercise. Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cerebrovascular disease account for 60% of all deaths.”

Back to basics

Bronte-Tinkew said from primary school, the Caribbean six food groups are taught. They are: staples (bread, ground provisions, corn, oats, and other grains), fats/oils (olive, soya, sunflower, and avocado), legumes (peas and beans), vegetables, fruits, food from animals (meats, fish, milk, eggs, yogurt).

The legumes and food from animals provide protein sources. “They are essential for the building [of] tissues, cells and muscles; vegetarians can consume peas and beans to get protein intake.”

Fruits and vegetables help protect the body. “They also help with producing shiny smooth skin, hair, nails and help the eyes…the protection group, they provide us with a lot of vitamins, and minerals so they should also be present on a daily basis”, she said.

Bronte-Tinkew said many people do not get much fruit and vegetables in their diet and encouraged everyone to take advantage of local produce as the soil in T&T is rich in certain minerals, and buying local helps support vendors.

The results of the 2011 WHO STEPwise approach to Surveillance (STEPS) released in 2012 found the diet of T&T’s population lacked fruits and vegetables; 90 per cent of the population ate less than five servings of fruit and vegetables daily (

By using the six food groups as a foundation, people can choose from each group for their nutritional intake. “…try to at least get in five servings for the most I would say, but more is always better, so you get a variety of foods and a variety of different nutrients which help the body function”.

Fast food

I asked a facetious question: can a meal of chicken and chips cover protein and carbohydrate intake? Bronte-Tinkew replied, “People still have to be mindful there are certain conditions or diseases out there, where if you get excess amount of sugar, salt or fat, you are putting yourself at risk”.

The fried chicken and chips will contain more fat (saturated, hydrogenated) than a home-cooked meal. “Those types of fat will lead to high cholesterol, or they would lead to heart disease or even complications with diabetes, because their (diabetics) risk is twice as high as persons without diabetes,” Bronte-Tinkew said.

She explained a wide variety of food is needed for a healthy immune system. Brightly coloured fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals. These rich pigments are sources of vitamins and minerals.

Some of these are broccoli, carrots, spinach, tomatoes, mangoes, paw paw, guava, pineapple (all good sources of Vitamin A and C). She said, “You are going to get sources of Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Vitamin E when you are consuming these types of food and they help support our immune system.”

Vitamin C helps with the production of: collagen, which is found in the skin, muscles, tissues, and white blood cells that help the body fight infections. Vitamin A helps the immune system fight infections and protect the eyes. “Vitamins, naturally from fruits and vegetables will help the body to recover and the bioavailability as well, from the natural sources.”

There are many supplements marketed to boost the immune system, but she noted these contain excessive amounts of some vitamins. “You might see something that contains 1000 mg Vit C or 400 mg of Vit E…If you look at the recommended daily amounts for healthy persons overall who are not immunocompromised…they actually need a lower amount every day and you can get this from your food.”

The recommended daily allowance for Vitamin C is about 75 mg and this can be obtained from eating an orange, guava, or half cup of sweet peppers.

“Fruits and vegetables, our food on a whole can provide us with our recommended daily allowance. You must eat or drink something so why not make the most of it and get that variety in,” Bronte-Tinkew said.

She added that there was a “time and place” for supplements but persons without signs or symptoms of deficiency can get their recommended amounts from food.

A healthy immune system is just one component of a healthy lifestyle. Others are: being active, exercising, annual health screening especially for blood pressure and diabetes if it runs in the family and even if it does not, getting sufficient sleep as “sleeping helps the body repair”.

Bronte-Tinkew said people should also try to eat on time. She said food provides the energy to “take on different tasks for the day.”

Tips to eating healthy on a budget

  1. Review what is in your pantry. See what is stocked so as not to overspend and waste.
  2. Try home gardening. Grow your own vegetables like patchoi which is rich in folic acid (a vitamin) and seasonings.
  3. Choose peas and beans in place of expensive meats. Peas and beans are versatile, they can be used with rice, or made into patties. Be creative.
  4. Look out for the seasonal fruits and vegetables that are reasonably priced. Certain starchy vegetables can be chopped, diced and frozen for later use e.g., pumpkins.
  5. Meal planning with the Caribbean six food groups. See what items are available for the meal. Bronte-Tinkew said, “Maybe two days out of the week you can have peas and rice, and you add some pumpkin or carrots to it or have a cook up with meat another day and add some patchoi and do a little noodle with that.”