Rob Hobson March 30, 2020

A shortage of fresh food doesn't mean your diet has to lack nutritional quality. Healthspan nutritionist Rob Hobson looks at some of our diet's most important nutrients – and how we can keep levels topped up during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

In light of the recent decision by the UK Government to keep the nation in lockdown, many people may be wondering how this could impact their health. Trips to the supermarket and local shops must be as infrequent as possible – and what's left on the shelves may make it challenging to maintain a balanced diet.

Although a lack of access to fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat could potentially lead to some nutritional deficiencies in your diet, there are plenty of healthy replacements if you know where to look.

Vitamin D

This nutrient is essential for the absorption of calcium and phosphorus, which are required for healthy bones and teeth. Vitamin D is also key in supporting a healthy immune system by enhancing the function of T-cells and macrophages that protect the body against disease-causing pathogens.

Why might you be missing out?

Our bodies synthesise Vitamin D from sunlight when it hits our skin, and we can only get limited amounts from our diet. During the winter months many people can become low in this vitamin, and as the nation faces a prolonged period of lockdown indoors, the chances of getting enough vitamin D are further compromised.

How can you get more vitamin D in your diet?

Foods containing vitamin D are limited to oily fish, eggs, mushrooms and fortified foods such as milk, plant milks and cereals. Including these foods in your diet can help, but taking a daily supplement is the best way to get adequate amounts of vitamin D.

Vitamin B12

This nutrient influences the production of healthy red blood cells, while also helping to maintain a healthy nervous system and ensuring that the food you eat is efficiently converted into energy to be used by the body’s cells. Vitamin B12 also plays an important role in maintaining a functioning immune system.

Why might you be missing out?

Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, and access to fresh versions of these foods may be more difficult than usual. Vegetarians and vegans can also lack this vital vitamin.

How can you get more vitamin B12 in your diet?

Fresh meat, fish and dairy are very rich in vitamin B12, which means you can use them sparingly and still get a good source in your diet. This nutrient is stored in the liver, so ensuring a steady supply can help keep your levels up. Canned fish is also a good source, as are fortified breakfast cereals and plant drinks such as soya and nut milks.

Iron

Iron is required for the production of healthy red blood cells, which transport oxygen and nutrients around the body. Low levels of iron can increase the risk of anaemia, which can cause tiredness and fatigue. Iron is also needed for the development of immune cells such as lymphocytes.

Why might you be missing out?

Fresh red meat is one of the richest sources of iron, but access to this may be more tricky at the moment.

How can you get more iron in your diet?

There are many other sources of iron, which include pulses, beans, lentils, dark green leafy vegetables, dried spices and dried fruits. The iron from these foods is not as easily absorbed as that from red meat, but uptake can be increased by combining them with a source of vitamin C (frozen mixed vegetables and berries, fruit juice and citrus fruits) as well as avoiding drinking tea with meals.

White flour in the UK is fortified with iron, which means foods such as white bread and pasta also provide a good source of this mineral.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Our bodies aren't able to make these essential fatty acids, so they need to be obtained from our diet. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support heart health and increase levels of HDL (good) cholesterol.

Why might you be missing out?

Fresh oily fish, such as salmon, trout and mackerel, are the richest source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet. Again, with fewer trips to the supermarket, access to fresh fish may be limited.

How can you get more omega-3 in your diet?

Fresh oily fish is a good source, but canned varieties - such as canned salmon, mackerel or sardines - also contain some omega-3s and can be used to make pasta sauces or sandwich and jacket potato fillings. Nuts and seeds provide a type of omega-3 fatty acid called alpha linolenic acid (ALA). While the conversion of ALA to the more useful omega-3s used by the body is poor, they still offer a useful source. Nuts and seeds can be eaten as a snack or sprinkled over many other dishes such as yoghurt, salads and stir fries.

For more information on staying well during COVID-19, visit our coronavirus advice hub.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.

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