OHS Canada Magazine

What you eat today can determine your health tomorrow

Regular consumption of healthy foods aids personal protection


Every cell in the body is directly built out of food intake, writes Sandra Dorman. (Brent Hofacker/Adobe Stock)

You are what you eat.

This oft-repeated, age-old phrase by Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was coined in 1826. It stands the test of time as a statement because, in a real sense, it is literal.

On close examination, every part of your body, from your brain to your bones, is made up of cells, and each cell is constructed directly from the food that you eat.

Your body breaks your food down to its tiniest parts and then uses these as the literal brick and mortar to create every part of your cells, enzymes and fluid contents.

So, why should we care?

Essential nutrients

First, some of the things we get from food are “essential” — meaning our body cannot make them. For example, humans cannot make vitamin C, and if we don’t get enough vitamin C, our body can’t build key structures like tissue collagen, without which we develop a specific vitamin-C deficiency disease called scurvy.

Most Canadians will never develop a vitamin or mineral deficiency; however, many Canadians can have nutrient insufficiencies; this means, they are not so low in the essential nutrient that they will develop clear symptoms of a deficiency, but they don’t have enough to maintain all of their cells’ functions.

Essentially, the body is forced to compromise, using the nutrient sparingly where it must, but withholding it from other cells, which won’t be able to function as well.

At the same time, some food we eat has a lot of unnecessary nutrients in it that either our body already has a lot of, or that our body struggles to manage.

Key examples that are problematic for Canadians are trans fats (processed and deep fried foods) and phosphorus (soda pop).

Trans fats are almost useless as a building block for cells and, as such, excessive consumption of trans fats leads to irregular depositions in the body — primarily as contributors to fatty plaque development.

Phosphorus, on the other hand, is removed via urine, but will leach your calcium from the bones to facilitate the removal, lending to the development of osteoporosis.

COVID-19 inflammation

If you have been following the medical news, you will know that people who are older and people with pre-existing disease are the most susceptible to developing a severe and life-threatening case of COVID-19. Why?

Firstly, as an infection, COVID causes inflammation. And second, people who have an underlying, persistent level of body-wide inflammation are more likely to have an overwhelming and uncontrolled inflammatory response — which can kill you.

Inflammation is an important part of your immune defence system. It alerts your body that there is an infectious invasion and then “holds” the infection at bay until the cavalry (your specific immune response) can be mobilized and directed against the invader (COVID).

Normally, a person has an acute event — a cut, a bruise, an infection, poison intake — and your body responds with an inflammatory response including redness, swelling, pain, heat, and sometimes loss of function.

The process is co-ordinated by inflammatory mediators (C-reactive protein, prostaglandins, leukotrienes, cytokines) and normally, the job gets done, the invader is eradicated and anti-inflammatory mediators are then released that returns the body to normal.

Some people however, have an ongoing, although low, level of inflammation in their whole body. This “chronic” inflammation occurs because the triggering event is something that keeps happening.

Take smoking, for example. Every time you smoke, smoke enters your lungs causing cell damage, that triggers inflammation in your lung. The inflammatory compounds are the exact same as when you got an infection, but now, they aren’t ever really going away.  

Many of the most common diseases in Canada are associated with chronic inflammation, including: cardiovascular disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes and metabolic syndrome, fatty liver disease, autoimmune diseases and obesity. In addition, the aging process is associated with a slow increase in chronic inflammation.

So, when COVID strikes in these people and induces a normal inflammatory reaction, it is happening on top of an existing inflammatory reaction, which can overwhelm the system — causing extensive damage or clotting that is not relieved by anti-inflammatory mediators.

Diet’s effect on COVID-19

Certain essential nutrients are what anti-Inflammatory mediators are made from!

These include:

  • unsaturated fats (also called Omega 3, 6, 9, 12 or mono-unsaturated fatty acids and poly-unsaturated fatty acids)
  • vitamins E, C, D, A and other plant nutrients – phytochemicals.

Not surprisingly, because of the types of foods these essential nutrients are found in, many Canadians are insufficient in them.

This chronic insufficiency contributes to the most common diseases in Canada and are the same nutrients that will best protect you from infection!

Starting new habits are easier to accomplish that stopping poor habits. Canadians should focus on adding healthy foods, rather than removing unhealthy foods. The middle of a pandemic is probably not the time to give up your comfort food.

But it is the time to:

  • Incorporate an unsaturated fat with every meal — add flax seed to yogurt; take a handful of walnuts at lunch and eat a small can of tuna on crackers for a snack. This is the most important part of your body’s armour.
  • Either drink milk daily or take a vitamin D pill — ideally, an oil-based vitamin D pill, such as cod liver oil.
  • Actively incorporate more plants into each meal. Ask yourself: “What two plants are we eating for dinner? For lunch? For breakfast?”
  • Expand your perception of what plants are! The easiest and cheapest plants are: beans/lentils, oatmeal, potatoes, brown rice, dried fruit, nuts/seeds and canned plants (corn, tomatoes, mushrooms).

It’s important to note that most nutrients take time to accumulate in your body.

The cells you currently have do not turn over their building blocks in hours. The average red blood cell lives 90 days, so to rebuild your body, you need to regularly eat healthy foods to build up your personal protection over long periods of time.

2020 is the year of change. Crisis provides opportunity!

Make this the year you change your eating habits — both to protect you and your family if you get COVID-19; but to also provide long-term protection from the most prevalent diseases in Canada today.

Sandra Dorman, PhD, is the director of the Centre for Research Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) in Sudbury, Ont.