What You Eat Matters: Nutrition and Infectious Diseases
Nutritionally compromised individuals may suffer from anorexia, decreased intestinal absorption & metabolic rate.
As we move through life, we are offered various health pointers passed through generations with no particular origin.
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
“Drink at least 8 cups of water daily.”
“Eat a lot of fruits and veggies.”
“A Man is What He Eats”
However, the question remains: Why? What makes these suggestions so accurate that they’ve stood the test of time? A simple answer would be nutrition.
Nutrition can either help build us up or breaks us down. Moreover, it is a cardinal contributor to our health as it is the fuel that gives our body the strength to recover from setbacks, fight off unwelcome interlopers, and strengthen our immune system. Hence, it can be safe to hypothesize that nutrition significantly connects to an individual’s susceptibility to infectious diseases.
This article will examine the complex relationship between nutrition and infectious diseases in South Asia, specifically Pakistan, and examine how we can use nutrition as a defense.
The term ‘infectious diseases, according to WHO, refers to disorders that are instigated by viruses, bacteria, and parasites that can become contagious under ideal conditions (Organization). Common infectious diseases can range from influenza, dysentery, and gastroenteritis to Tuberculosis, hepatitis, and measles.
The World Health Organization (WHO) finds that such diseases are responsible for 13·7 million deaths yearly worldwide (Gray and Sharara 2022). The statistics can be staggering; 3.1 million people died from diarrheal diseases such as cholera, typhoid, and dysentery, with most of the victims being children. In addition, Tuberculosis (TB) infected 10.6 million people, malaria 247 million, hepatitis B over 2 billion, and measles more than 9 million (Foundation 2021, Iacobucci 2022, Organization 2022, Organization 2022).
Many of these deaths can be traced back to overcrowded, economically struggling South Asian countries, specifically affecting children under the age of 5 and making up half of the overall disease prevalence (Basnyat and Rajapaksa 2004, Zaidi, Awasthi, et al. 2004, Ghose Bishwajit 2014). Pakistan is one of these countries and although various efforts have been made that have increased life expectancy from 66.9 years in 2017 to 67.3 years in 2019, it is still lagging when compared to its nieghboring countries Bangladesh, China, and Sri Lanka.
The deaths of 71,000 children every year due to pneumonia, the estimated 3.4 million people with malaria in 2022, and the 10 million people carrying hepatitis C in Pakistan demonstrate just how pressing the issue is. (Dawn 2022, Khan 2022, Organization 2022)
Nutrition is a cardinal contributor to our health as it is the fuel that gives our body the strength to recover from setbacks, fight off unwelcome interlopers, and strengthen our immune system.
However, recent studies have unearthed another way to combat this predicament: nutrition. With the progressive shift from agriculture to an industrial economy, there is a shift from rural to urban areas, which further populate main cities like Lahore, Islamabad, Sialkot, Faisalabad etc. This brings about a significant deterioration in the environmental conditions and lowers the standard of living and overall nutrition. Poorer nutrition leads to malnutrition, an important step that leads to an underdeveloped immune system and increased susceptibility to diseases(CHAN , Keusch 2003, Ambrus and Ambrus 2004).
This was demonstrated in a prospective, randomized nutritional intervention study that observed four groups of infants in a high-incidence malnutrition region of Lahore. The study concluded that inadequate dietary intake within the first year of life substantially increases the chances of diarrhea and malnutrition in Pakistani infants (JAVAID, HASCHKE et al. 1991).
Nutritionally compromised individuals may suffer from anorexia, decreased intestinal absorption & metabolic rate, and an overall deficiency in various multivitamins and minerals that hinder their body’s normal functioning (Farhadi and Ovchinnikov 2018).
Improper nutrition may have lasting effects, as reported in an experimental study which concluded that Energy Restriction hindered the proper functioning of natural killer cells and increased the harshness of influenza (Ritz, Aktan et al. 2008). Not only can insufficient diet decrease immunity and susceptibility to infectious diseases, but improper diets as observed in obese individuals, can also be a contributing factor by reducing vaccine efficacy and a slowed antiviral response (Kim, Kim et al. 2011, Taylor, Cao et al. 2012, Honce and Schultz-Cherry 2019).
Therefore, a proper diet with the right amount of nutrition can act as a game changer in the fight against infectious diseases. Not only can a nutritious diet rich in zinc, vitamins C, D, and A, along with essential omega-3 fatty acids, help buttress our immune system, but it can also ensure that our body is fit enough to tackle any illnesses (Aman and Masood 2020, Pecora, Persico et al. 2020).
An interesting point to note here is that simply increasing the amount of food you intake does not help improve your nutrition levels, but eating the right foods. We can only do this by increasing accessibility to such foods and awareness among households, especially women (Farhadi and Ovchinnikov 2018).
According to Dr Krutika, “many people don’t realize that their gut health plays a crucial role in preventing and managing infectious diseases. Consuming a diet high in fiber, fermented foods, and probiotics promotes a healthy gut microbiome, which helps strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of infections. On the other hand, a diet high in sugar, processed foods, and unhealthy fats harms the gut microbiome and weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections.” https://www.clinicspots.com/blog/dr-krutika-nanavati-sports-dietician-nutritionist
Therefore, nutrition is essential in either exacerbating or ameliorating the progression towards or prevention of various diseases. by re-emphasizing the importance of nutrition, and how a good nutritional diet is an essential factor in preventing infectious diseases. Summarize all the points discussed in the paragraphs and suggest potential solutions for public health programs to improve dietary habits.
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Also, Read: Dr. Shagufta on how nutrition can help to combat Coronavirus
Abeer Asif is a BS Biotechnology graduate of FCC, Lahore and a Masters Fulbright 2023 awardee. She enjoys writing scientific articles, gardening, learning new languages, and cycling in her free time.