COVID-19 is an unprecedented pandemic that has indisputably impacted our lives. As communities throughout the world look for ways to minimize the risk of COVID-19, maintaining and boosting good health is top of mind for many. Numerous steps such as hand-washing, staying hydrated and being physically active can minimize the risk of illness. One of the best defenses is to maintain a healthy immune system, and a healthy eating pattern can play an important role.
With shelter-in-place orders in effect in many states throughout the country, families are looking for ways to keep healthy and fed, which provides an opportunity for health professionals and those in the dairy community to emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy immune system by consuming a variety of nutritious and wholesome foods, including dairy.
Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt contain essential nutrients, including vitamins A and D, zinc and protein, which support immune function. These nutrients have specific roles within the immune system:
- Vitamin A supports the tissues of the gastrointestinal tract and respiratory systems.
- Vitamin D plays a role in the gastrointestinal tract and protects against lung infections.
- Zinc helps with immune system function and the maintenance of skin integrity.
- Protein aids in healing and recovery.
Beyond the effects of individual nutrients, research shows that dairy foods such as milk, cheese and yogurt contain a unique package of nutrients that work together to enhance health benefits. Scientific research continues to link milk and dairy food consumption, when part of a healthy eating pattern, to a wide range of health benefits, including blood pressure control, improved bone health, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and better weight management. For children and adolescents, consuming dairy foods plays an important role in supporting optimal growth and development.
Probiotics and health
Fermented dairy foods such as yogurt and certain cheeses contain probiotics, which are live bacteria in food that are noted for their positive impact on gut health. Research shows that eating yogurt and other fermented foods rich in probiotics may help improve immunity and reduce inflammation.
A scientific study found that the number of upper respiratory infections and flu-like symptoms in adults was reduced after they consumed probiotic-rich yogurt drinks. Another study found that preschool-age children whose diets included daily probiotics experienced reduced cold and flu symptoms, resulting in fewer school absences.
Probiotics found in foods can support not only physical health, but also mental wellbeing. Studies are examining probiotics and their possible health benefits, including the ability to reduce anxiety, relieve stress and improve mental outlook.
Given the current pandemic, we are living in a highly stressful and uncertain time. Prioritizing mental, physical and emotional health and self-care, including food choices, can play an important role in staying healthy and getting through this difficult time.
Encourage healthy eating patterns
Encouraging consumers to build eating patterns that consist of nutritious and wholesome foods will help support their health and wellbeing during this global health crisis and beyond. Healthy eating patterns are built on daily food and beverage choices.
Health experts encourage consumers to eat nutrient-dense foods such as milk, cheese, yogurt, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds, fish, lean meat, poultry, eggs and healthy fats and oils, while limiting or avoiding refined starches, added sugars, processed meats and other highly processed foods.
The current pandemic is also exacerbating food insecurity in communities as families are forced to stretch their food dollars further. Fortunately, healthy food choices can still fit within a budget, and many community resources are available to assist families in accessing nutritious foods. It is important to provide consumers with information to help them make budget-friendly food choices that can support health year-round.
As a dairy community, we have an important role to play. Dairy processors can support community health by bringing nutritious, wholesome and affordable dairy foods to the market and by empowering consumers with information needed to support and positively impact their health and wellbeing.
All of us can share information with our networks about the importance of consuming a healthy, balanced diet, which includes milk and dairy foods. Information can be shared directly and through traditional communication channels, social media and in marketing and promotion efforts.
Dairy consumption is supported by nutrition science, and emerging research continues to support dairy’s role in healthy eating patterns. As industry leaders, we can help inform policy development by sharing updates on dairy’s role in daily eating patterns as supported by nutrition science and by elevating the nutritional needs of children for optimal growth and development. By doing these things, I believe we as a dairy community can continue to successfully support community health and elevate the health of children and families during COVID-19 and beyond.