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Nikki Putnam-Badding - Healthy at home: Food, mood and immunity amid a pandemic

April 23, 2020

People who stay active, eat a well-balanced diet and take supplements as necessary tend to be healthier and have stronger immune systems, which is very important at a time like this.

As people around the world adjust their lifestyles to social distancing restrictions, it’s more important than ever to keep our lives in balance and our health in check. As a registered dietician and director of human health initiatives at Alltech, Nikki Putnam-Badding is an expert on supporting immunity and well-being through nutrition. Join us as she shares her tips for eating healthy, shopping efficiently and maintaining a sense of normalcy during the pandemic.

Hosted by Michelle Michael

As lead video producer at Alltech, Michelle travels the globe for the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty documentary series. Michelle spent a decade as a video producer/reporter in Germany, reporting from military hotspots at the height of the war on terrorism. The National Press Photographer's Association (NPPA) has twice recognized Michelle as their solo video journalist of the year.

Co-produced by Brandon Whitworth

As the senior media production specialist at Alltech, Brandon co-produces the company’s award-winning Planet of Plenty documentary series. Brandon is a two-time Emmy Award winning television news photojournalist and three-time nominee. He has received several regional awards from the National Press Photographers Association for excellence in visual storytelling.

The following is an edited transcript of Michelle Michael’s interview with Nikki Putnam-Badding. Click below to hear the full audio.

Michelle:       Hello! I'm Michelle Michael. In this special series of AgFuture, we're talking with those working along the food supply chain about the impact of COVID-19. My guest today is Nikki Putnam Badding, a registered dietician and, also, a colleague of mine. Nikki is the director of human initiatives at Alltech. Nikki, thank you so much for being with us today.


Nikki:              Thanks for having me, Michelle.


Michelle:       Let's talk about self-care. This pandemic, it can feel overwhelming. People are dealing with information overload, long work hours, caring for family during those work hours and a whole host of other things. It's important, though, I think, to pause for a moment, collect ourselves and just admit that this is, at times, a taxing situation and it can impact our well-being. Is that right?


Nikki:              Absolutely.


Michelle:       As a dietitian, what concerns you most about people during this experience?


Nikki:              Well, as you mentioned, Michelle, this is a really challenging time for everyone. I think it's really easy to let that self-care slip on occasion. We're trying to focus on our new roles, on working from home, maybe taking care of children and other family members at the same time. Really, what we want to focus on from a nutrition and health perspective is choosing a healthy lifestyle for the short and long term for your overall health and wellness — so following general good health guidelines is really one of the single best steps you can take for yourself and to keep your naturally functioning immune system strong and healthy.


                        Every part of our body, including our immune systems, functions better when bolstered by healthy living strategies — for example, trying to quit smoking, if you're a smoker; eating a diet high in whole foods, like lean meats, seafood, dairy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats; continuing to exercise regularly, which can be really tough during a time like this; maintaining a healthy weight; drinking alcohol in moderation, and that'd be one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men; trying to get adequate sleep as much as we can; and also, trying to minimize our stress levels.


                        During this time, proper nutrition and hydration are absolutely vital. People who stay active, eat a well-balanced diet and take supplements as necessary tend to be healthier and have stronger immune systems, which is very important at a time like this, and (also have) a lower risk of chronic illnesses and infectious disease.


Michelle:       When you talk about strengthening our immune systems to fight off illness, can you talk a little bit more specifically about which nutrients or which foods we should be taking in to boost our immune system and stay well during this pandemic?


Nikki:              Sure thing. As I mentioned, good nutrition is essential to a strong immune system, and it may offer protection from seasonal illness and other health problems. Although no one food or supplement can prevent illness, you can actually help support your immune system by including some key nutrients in your overall eating plan on a regular basis. While, unfortunately, just eating one orange here or there won't do the trick, a truly healthy immune system depends on a balanced diet, normal sleep patterns and regular exercise.


                        A few nutrients that are known to help support a strong immune system are protein, interestingly enough, which plays a role in the body's immune system, especially for healing and recovery, and vitamin A, because it helps regulate the immune system and protect against infections by keeping our skin and the tissues in our mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy. Vitamin C, the one we all know, supports the immune system by stimulating the formation of antibodies. Vitamin E works as an antioxidant and may support immune function as well. Vitamin D is in there; it promotes an immune response that helps defend your body against pathogens, and there's zinc, which helps the immune system work properly and can also help wounds heal. Finally, selenium, which has an absolutely crucial role in a wide variety of physiological processes, affecting immune response — and the immune system in general actually relies on adequate dietary selenium intake.


                        Though I usually tell people it's best to get most of your nutrition through food, a specific vitamin or mineral supplement may benefit your health and overall wellness in the instance that you're not reaching the recommended daily intake of a nutrient, or perhaps you're utilizing them as a part of a preventative health regimen.


Michelle:       And not just upping your nutrient intake, Nikki, but many of us are limiting the number of times that we would go to the supermarket to pick up fresh foods. What are some tips for healthy eating when we're minimizing our trips to the store or maybe even the selection is limited, in some cases, temporarily?


Nikki:              Yeah, that's a great point. I think purchasing, storing and cooking fresh food can be really challenging when we're advised to limit trips outside of the home, particularly to the supermarket, so my first recommendation would be to try to keep up as much as possible with that fruit and vegetable intake. Whenever it's possible to get ahold of fresh produce, do so, of course, but depending on where you live, what time of year it is and, now, as you've mentioned, the availability, due to interruptions in the supply chain or perhaps other people who are food hoarding, you can't always get your hands on high-quality, fresh produce, so the next best thing is frozen. Manufacturers most often freeze fruits and veggies at peak ripeness, which means they pack a similar nutritional value as their fresh counterparts. Just make sure you're choosing options without added sugar or sodium. You can also swap in healthy dried or canned alternatives when fresh or frozen are not available. Although canned vegetables and dried fruits do tend to be a bit lower in quantity of vitamins than fresh, they are a great fallback option when fresh produce or frozen are hard to come by.


                        I also like to mention that other canned items that are great to have on hand are canned beans, because they do provide an abundance of nutrients, and they can be stored for months, sometimes even years, and they can be included in meals in many ways. Same goes for canned fish, such as sardines, mackerel, salmon — they all provide great protein sources, omega-3 fatty acids and a range of vitamins and minerals — and then having some dried goods on hand is a good backup, like dried beans and grains. One last note on this front: I know it's really tempting to stock up on processed foods like ready-to-eat meals, packaged snacks and treats. They're often very high in saturated fats, sugars and salt and, at the same time, provide us with less nutrition. So, in that vein, also try to avoid sugary drinks as much as possible and, instead, drink lots of water and other low-calorie beverages.


Michelle:       I hear from you, certainly, that fresh is best, and I've talked to many growers or farmers who feel that perhaps people at this time are shying away from fresh produce because of a fear that COVID-19 can be spread through food. From you, from a dietitian — can you answer that question for us? Can this spread through food?


Nikki:              I'm really happy you asked that question, Michelle. First and foremost, I should note that, of course, I'm not an infectious disease expert, but following the basic guidelines of hygiene and food safety, it's very unlikely that the virus could be spread through food — but not entirely impossible, meaning that it's possible the virus can get onto or into food if someone who is infected coughs or sneezes on the food or has the virus on their hands and touches the food. But unlike bacteria that causes foodborne illnesses, coronavirus doesn't multiply on food. There's currently no evidence to suggest it can be transmitted through food or water systems, but a lot of experts are saying that sharing food and beverages during this time should be limited, and always continue proper home food safety.


Michelle:       Well, would it be safer, then, during this time, to — if you're buying fresh produce — would it be safer to cook it and consume it that way?


Nikki:              Potentially. I don't think consumers need to be fearful of eating fresh produce, raw fruits and vegetables, though it's possible that someone who is infected sneezed directly on a banana and you picked up that banana and touched your face. You could get infected, but you're much more likely to get infected by standing next to that person while shopping for that banana. That's why social distancing, putting at least that six feet of space between you and other people, is so important. Interestingly, about cooking, the World Health Organization has said that the virus is probably susceptible to normal cooking temperatures, so you don't need to cook food any differently than what you typically do for food safety. These experts are saying that cooking your food to the same temperatures required to kill pathogens that cause foodborne illness is also likely to kill COVID-19. That would be, as a reminder, 145°F for fresh pork, beef roast and fish; 160°F for egg dishes and other cuts of beef; and 165°F for poultry, ground beef, or reheating pre-cooked ham or leftovers or casseroles that might contain some of those pieces of fresh produce you mentioned.


Michelle:       If we are going to eat that raw produce, fruits and vegetables, are there certain precautions we need to take at this time — differently washing the fruits and vegetables than we would have before this pandemic?


Nikki:              At this time, many of the expert organizations are saying no, we don't need to take any different measures than we did before. Just make sure to thoroughly wash those fruits and vegetables when you get home.


I know there's a lot of questions out there, too, about (whether or not you can) pick up COVID-19 from food packaging. This is a question that the CDC actually addressed recently, and they're saying COVID-19 is primarily transmitted person to person through respiratory droplets, so currently, there is no evidence to support transmission of the virus through food. In general, because of the poor survivability of these viruses on surfaces, there is likely a very low risk of spread from food products or packaging, but that being said, if you touch something that has the virus on it — like a food package or produce or a package of meat — and then touch your nose, mouth or eyes, you could become infected. So, before preparing or eating food, it's important to always wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Also, just making sure you're wiping down those surfaces when you get home after you've picked up your groceries. Make sure, when you unpack your food, you just wipe everything down. Make sure you're tossing away those disposable bags, if they came in that, or washing your reusable bags immediately when you get home.


Michelle:       Good advice. Nikki, when it comes to plants, processing plants, farmers — a lot of times, those vegetables, they're picked by hand. A lot of that is done by hand. I know that they're practicing social distancing, but should we be concerned about food coming from areas where there is a high risk of COVID-19?


Nikki:              Actually, according to the Department of Agriculture's recent updates on COVID-19, they're saying there's no evidence to support transmission of the virus with any of those foods that had been either imported or transported throughout the country. It's important to remember that, unlike bacteria that causes foodborne illness, the virus, as I mentioned before, doesn't multiply on or in foods, and the current research shows that it can only survive for a very limited time on most surfaces. Most often, even if a product or packaging were carrying the virus or it was handpicked by someone who was infected and maybe had the virus on their hands, it would most likely die during transport. I think that can put a lot of consumers' minds at ease — although, as I previously mentioned, it's always just a good idea to keep following that (guideline to) wash your fresh fruits and veggies when you get them home from the store and wipe down that food packaging, just for that final line of defense.


Michelle:       We keep hearing about the importance of supporting local businesses, especially restaurants, during this time, as the bulk of their business is gone. They're only doing takeout right now or curbside pickup or delivery, but is that safe? Is it actually safe to get takeout and delivery from restaurants during a pandemic like this?


Nikki:              Yes, it is. I'm happy to hear that you mentioned supporting local businesses, particularly restaurants right now, when we can't dine in. The takeout and delivery from restaurants can actually be a very good alternative to obtaining food because, unlike grocery shopping, it really does greatly reduce the need to interact with other people. Most restaurants have instituted contactless delivery or pickup practices that allow people to either pre-pay for food or receive it without coming close to another person, which we know is the biggest risk factor for the disease, interacting closely with other people. If you are worried about bringing those foods into your home, to further reduce your risk, just transfer that food, that takeout, to a plate when you get home, dispose of the containers and then, again, always wash your hands before you eat — but it is a very good and, typically, very safe way to obtain food.


Michelle:       We keep hearing about the 65-and-up population (being) at an increased risk of COVID-19 at this time. I wonder, from a dietary point of view, somebody in that age bracket — does the immune system change with age, and does that age group have to eat differently?


Nikki:              Yes. As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced, which, in turn, may contribute to more infections. While some people age healthily, the conclusion of many studies is that, compared with younger people, elderly folks are more likely to contract infectious diseases and viruses and are more likely to die from them. Interestingly, there appears to be an even stronger connection between nutrition and immunity in the elderly. A form of malnutrition that's actually surprisingly common, even in affluent countries, is known as micronutrient malnutrition. Micronutrient malnutrition occurs when a person is deficient in some of the essential vitamins and trace minerals that are obtained through diet. Older people often tend to eat less, and they have less variety in their diets. One important question is, perhaps, whether dietary supplements may help older people maintain a healthier immune system — something to be discussed with their doctor or dietitian.


Michelle:       I wonder, Nikki, if you can talk about why, during this time, (when) everybody's schedules are just changed suddenly, everybody's lives are just uprooted and nothing is normal, why is it so easy to get off-track, and what can we do to try to maintain some sort of normalcy from a dietary perspective?


Nikki:              Yeah. As you've mentioned, Michelle, it's so easy to get off-track during this time because our schedules are changed, and many of us have been forced into this change without any prior warning — working from home, taking care of children and family members from home — and everything's just been thrown out of whack. Some really important things, and fairly easy things, that you can do is just try to keep yourself on a regular schedule. Go back to thinking about what was your schedule for eating, grocery shopping, working out, trying to stay active, sleep — what were your tactics for minimizing stress before this? Try to pull in as much of those tactics as you can, because many of those you know already worked for you, and then try to change that around and make it fit your new schedule.


                        Those people who have kiddos at home: I think a really nice way to entertain kids and keep them busy is to involve them in mealtimes. Have more discussions about food. This is a fantastic time to talk about where food comes from, how it nourishes their body, and get them really involved in planning and preparation of food, and then try to do more things either as a family or, if you don't have kiddos, just get outside when possible and where it's safe to spend some time moving around. There are also a lot of really great online resources where you can find at-home workouts. I recommend that to a lot of people, even if you do it for ten minutes a day. It's just a nice way to keep moving.


Try to stay to a normal work and sleep schedule. It can be very difficult while we're working from home to step away from our computers and close everything down like a normal eight-to-five or nine-to-five business, because our office is right there, so try to make sure you're stepping away for breakfast, lunch, dinner, maybe even snacks, if you can, just to get a break from the computer and a break from work, and try to go back to some normalcy.


Michelle:       If you've never had time to prepare your own meals, to fall in love with cooking, it seems like this might be a good opportunity, even.


Nikki:              Certainly. I've seen that there are a lot of YouTube channels that are jumping in popularity. There's one I really enjoy: it's Italian grandmothers making old Italian recipes and pasta. I've seen their viewership just skyrocket recently because people are taking a new interest in preparing things from scratch, or some of those YouTube channels that are showing people how to just start cooking from the very beginning. As you've mentioned, there's no better time than now to start learning.


Michelle:       Nikki, do you have any other recommendations for keeping our food and keeping our kitchens safe?


Nikki:              Yeah. First and foremost, when you're going out for food, just a reminder, wear a mask and gloves when you're going out for food, to get groceries or picking up takeaway meals, and if you do use reusable grocery bags, masks or gloves, make sure you wash them immediately upon returning home. That's really important — or use single-use bags or disposable protective equipment during this time. We can't stop hearing this, but wash your hands regularly, as recommended by countless international organizations, plus before preparing and eating food. Even if you picked up your phone while you're eating lunch, make sure you wash your hands again, because a lot of those viruses and contaminants can stay on phones and surfaces and the like for much longer than they would on food.


                        Try to keep your kitchen a safe zone by removing non-cooking items from countertops. I know many of us, myself included, often end up tossing daily items here without thinking twice, putting mail on the countertop. Don't put grocery bags or takeaway bags on your countertops. Also, try to clean them every time before you prepare a meal, and sanitize kitchen surfaces, including your refrigerator, stove handles, cupboard pulls and the like, on a regular basis.


Michelle:       It adds so much to grocery shopping and preparing food, but some very important advice. Nikki Putnam Badding, a registered dietitian with some really fabulous advice on taking care of ourselves during this time. Nikki, take care of yourself, and thank you so much for joining us today.


Nikki:              Thanks, Michelle.


Michelle:       For additional resources on COVID-19, visit


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