Why flour is still missing from supermarket shelves



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Brigit Busicchia, Macquarie University

Extreme shortages of toilet paper, pasta and other pantry products defined the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic for many shoppers around the world. Availability of most these goods has returned to normal.

But not for baking goods – flour in particular.

In Britain the flour shortage has led to the thousand-year-old Sturminster Newton Mill, established in 1016, cranking back into production. Sales by small artisan outfits – such as the Shipton Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – have surged. It’s the same in France.

So why are there flour shortages from Europe to the United States and Australia?

The answer is both simple and complex.

It is partly to do with the basic economics of demand and supply. Demand for baking ingredients has spiked because people staying home (and not going to restaurants or cafes) cook more.

More fundamentally it is about the structure of concentrated food distribution systems geared to supply commercial rather than retail demand.

The inflexibility of those channels highlights a key issue in discussions about food security – that is, ensuring people have access to food. It is not just a matter of how much food is produced but how it is distributed.

Changing consumption patterns

Supermarket shortages of toilet paper and pasta were mostly attributed to a surge in demand driven by panic-buying and stockpiling, along with a lag in supply chains geared to provide just enough product to stores to avoid storing inexpensive but bulky inventory.

As stock disappeared from supermarket shelves, other consumers afraid of being caught short also started buying more than they normally would. Responding to that surge in demand and increasing supply took producers time – usually at least a month.




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But a less-discussed part of the problem was the shift in consumption patterns, as stay-at-home rules resulted in toilet paper demand from workplaces and public buildings declining and home demand increasing. And the toilet paper that commercial buyers want is different to what people buy for themselves.

In the case of flour, the split between supplying commercial and retail demand has been an even more significant factor.

Until the pandemic, retail demand was a small (and diminishing) part of the flour market. In Britain, for example, it represented just 4% of flour consumption. The rest went to commercial bakers and food manufacturers.

While the quality of flour commercial users buy is not necessarily different, the size of the packages in which they buy is – bags of 12, 25 of 32 kilograms, rather than the 1kg or 2kg bags that home bakers prefer.

With home demand spiking – in Australia, for example, retail flour sales rose 140% in March – the large flour-milling operations quickly reached the limits of their equipment and processes to package flour in smaller bags.



ABS 8501.0 Retail Trade, Australia, Mar 2020

Hence the supermarket shortages – and the opportunity that presented for boutique millers.

Industry concentration

Also contributing to the slowness of flour millers in responding to higher retail demand (compared to eggs, for instance) is the level of industry concentration.

In Australia, for example, four companies mill 80% of flour. In Britain the four largest millers account for about 65% of flour production.

Although highly efficient, these producers have been less flexible in adjusting their product packaging and moving distribution to supermarkets.




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We’ve had a taste of disrupted food supplies – here are 5 ways we can avoid a repeat


Concentration in the supermarket sector has not helped either. Increasingly, supermarket chains cut out intermediaries (wholesalers) from their supply chains and buy directly from producers. This has made changing their sources more difficult.

Production versus distribution

The rigidity of food supply chains in responding to changes in consumption by moving food distribution from commercial to retail channels can also be seen in cases of European and American farmers reportedly pouring milk down the drain and leaving vegetables to rot in their fields.




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Why farmers are dumping milk down the drain and letting produce rot in fields


As we ponder how to ensure food security, we will need to address these systemic issues. We cannot think problems are solved just by increasing supply. It is distribution that is key.The Conversation

Brigit Busicchia, PhD, Political Economy, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’ve had a taste of disrupted food supplies – here are 5 ways we can avoid a repeat



The Bread Famine and the Pawnbroker, Brothers Lesueur (18th century)

Kimberley Reis, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Griffith University

When our reliance on supermarkets is seriously disrupted – for example, by spikes in demand due to panic buying or the flooding of distribution centres – we are left with few alternatives. Supermarkets are central to our everyday lives, but they have also become symbols of our vulnerability in times of disruption.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused us to rethink many things we took for granted. This includes the plentiful supply of a great variety of food at relatively stable prices in our supermarkets.




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Grow your own: making Australian cities more food-secure


Until recently, if we thought about food security at all, it was more likely to conjure images of malnutrition in countries of the global south rather than empty supermarket shelves.

However, food insecurity exists in Australia. It can be experienced as hunger and also as feelings of anxiety about future food shortages.

The rise of supermarkets and global supply chains

Supermarkets were a 1930s success story that began during the Great Depression. The world’s first supermarket, King Kullen, opened with the enduring principle of “Pile it high, sell it low!” King Kullen became the standard model of supermarket operations with globally interconnected supply chains.

While this model epitomised the trend of globalisation, during the second world war more local food production was encouraged in the form of “victory gardens”. These made a significant contribution to food security during the war years. It was a demonstration of what can be achieved in times of crisis.

An Australian government ‘Grow your own’ campaign billboard from 1943.
NAA C2829/2



Read more:
Is it time to resurrect the wartime ‘Grow Your Own’ campaign?


‘What if’ questions help us build resilience

Contingency planning is about being clear on your Plan B or Plan C if Plan A hits trouble. It’s about asking the “what if” questions. As a planning tool, this enables systems to build resilience to disruption by identifying other pathways to achieve desired outcomes.

The difference between now and the 1930s is that today we are vastly more connected at a global scale. Within our food-supply chains, we can use the knowledge that comes from this greater connectivity to ask different “what if” questions.

For example, what if a pandemic and a severe weather event overlapped, disrupting critical transport infrastructure? How could we adapt?

Or what if several Australian states experienced serious disruptions to food supply at the same time? How could we ensure timely resupply?

Recent experiences of empty supermarket shelves remind us of the importance of such questions.

Greater self-sufficiency is sensible and practical. Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience makes clear that we should understand the risks we live with – in this case, our deep-seated and often unquestioned dependency on long food-supply chains.




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The strategy also calls for authorities to help empower citizens to share responsibility where they can in building their own resilience to hardship. This taps into a primal urge, as we have seen in the recent spike in demand for seedlings and vegetable plants at nurseries as people take to home gardening, digging not so much for victory as for survival during a shutdown.

Strategies to prepare for the next crisis

These questions highlight the need to think about ways to complement and enhance existing arrangements for supplying food. Our research identifies several immediate opportunities to promote shorter food-supply chains and devise contingency food plans:

1. We can buy more locally produced food staples, support local producers at a farmers’ market, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, or take advantage of online platforms that make a range of locally grown food more readily available.

2. Local businesses can embed contingency arrangements to ensure access to locally produced food within their business continuity plans, building greater capacity to keep business and local economies operating in difficult times.

3. Supermarkets can advocate for and support shorter food-supply chains by sourcing food products locally where possible and championing “buy local” campaigns.

4. An active undertaking to identify and map the regional food bowls of each city and township will support contingency plans.

5. Local councils can help make it possible to grow much more of the food we need, even in relatively dense towns and cities. This can range from potted herbs on apartment balconies, through to broccoli in suburban backyards to intensive farming operations in big industrial estate sheds or rooftops. Municipal parks that feature little more than lawn can devote some space to community gardens, while more rigorous land-use planning regimes can protect market gardening near urban centres.




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Farming the suburbs – why can’t we grow food wherever we want?


Societies have faced significant food and health crises over the centuries. Now, though, we have almost real-time data on food production, stocks and supply chains. Would it not be sensible to strengthen local food systems that can complement our supermarkets and global networks?

If we don’t do this, the only lesson we will have learned from the coronavirus crisis is to start hoarding baked beans, toilet paper and hand sanitiser as soon as we first hear of a looming disaster.The Conversation

Kimberley Reis, Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Built Environment, and Director, Engagement (Industry), Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Professor of Urban Management & Planning and Director, Cities Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

While we wait for a coronavirus vaccine, eating well, exercising and managing stress can boost your immune system



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Julia J Rucklidge, University of Canterbury and Grant Schofield, Auckland University of Technology

Social distancing may remain necessary during the 18 months or more we’ll have to wait for a coronavirus vaccine.

This can feel like we have little control, but there are several evidence-based protective measures we can take in the interim to ensure we are as healthy as possible to fight off infection and prevent mental health problems that escalate with uncertainty and stress.




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Coronavirus and underlying medical conditions

There is recent evidence that some younger people suffer strokes after contracting the virus, but the majority of people who end up hospitalised, in intensive care or dying from COVID-19 have an underlying medical condition. One study showed 89% of those hospitalised in the US had at least one.

These underlying medical conditions include high blood pressure, high blood sugar (especially type 2 diabetes), excessive weight and lung conditions. An analysis of data from the UK National Health Service shows that of the first 2,204 COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units, 72.7% were either overweight or obese.

All of these health issues have been associated with our lifestyle including poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol and high stress.

It’s obvious we have created a society where being active, eating healthily, drinking less and keeping our stress under control is difficult. Perhaps it’s time to push back. This may be important for major conditions like heart disease and diabetes as well as the added threat we face from emerging infectious diseases.

One study shows only 12% of Americans are in optimal metabolic health, which means their blood pressure, blood glucose, weight and cholesterol are within a healthy range. This rate is likely similar in many Western countries.

There is now a body of evidence linking our unhealthy lifestyle with viral, especially respiratory diseases. High blood sugar reduces and impairs immune function. Excessive body fat is known to disrupt immune regulation and lead to chronic inflammation. Insulin resistance and pre-diabetes can delay and weaken the immune response to respiratory viruses.




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Improving immunity through lifestyle choices

If we are going to restrict and change our lifestyles for 12 to 18 months while we wait for a vaccine, and if we want to protect ourselves better now and in the future, we could address these lifestyle factors. They not only affect our recovery from viruses and respiratory infections, but are also the biggest cost to the quality of life in most countries.

Optimising the health of the nation must be at the forefront. And this is long overdue. There has been a substantial under-investment by most developed countries in preventive medicine to reduce chronic diseases and improve both longevity and quality of life through healthy lifestyles.

Healthy organisms are naturally resistant to infections. This is true in plants, animals and people. Maintaining optimal health is our best defences against a pandemic until a vaccine is available.

We identify three modifiable risk factors:

1. Diet

Research shows better nourished people are less likely to develop both mental and physical problems. Certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D and zinc have been identified as essential for improving immunity across the lifespan. A better diet is associated with a lower chance of developing mental health problems in both children and adults. Low levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamin D, have been recognised as risk factors for COVID-19. These nutrients are easy (and cheap) to replenish.

What does it mean to be better nourished? Eating real whole foods – fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and healthy fats and reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods.

2. Exercise

Being physically fit adds years to your life – and quality of life. High cardiorespiratory (lung and heart) fitness is also associated with less respiratory illness, and better survival from such illnesses.

How do you get fit? Set aside time and prioritise walking at a minimum, and more vigorous activity if possible, every day. Ideally, you would get outside and be with important others. The more the better, as long as you are not overdoing it for your individual fitness level.

3. Stress

Stress impairs our immunity. It disrupts the regulation of the cortisol response which can suppress immune function. Chronic stress can decrease the body’s lymphocytes (white blood cells that help fight off infection). The lower your lymphocyte count, the more at risk you are of catching a virus.

How do we lower stress? Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, cognitive-behaviour therapy, optimising sleep and eating well can all help in mitigating the negative impact of stress on our lives. Taking additional nutrients, such as the B vitamins, and the full breadth of minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc, during times of stress has a positive impact on overall stress levels.




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Modifying lifestyle factors won’t eliminate COVID-19 but it can reduce the risk of death and help people to recover. And these factors can be in our control if we and our governments take the initiative.The Conversation

Julia J Rucklidge, Professor of Psychology, University of Canterbury and Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Human Potential Centre, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t panic: Australia has truly excellent food security



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Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Peter Gooday, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

COVID-19 has taken Australia and the world by surprise. Coming after severe droughts in eastern Australia, concerns have been raised about Australian food security.

The concerns are understandable, but they are misplaced.

Despite temporary shortages of some food items in supermarkets caused by an unexpected surge in demand, Australia does not have a food security problem.

An Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences study released today outlines why Australia is one of the most food-secure countries in the world.

Supermarket shelves reflect a surge in demand

Uncertainties around the impacts of COVID-19 have triggered a rapid increase in purchasing by consumers seeking to stockpile a range of items, resulting in disruption to stocks of some basic food items.

This disruption is temporary and not an indication of food shortages.

Rather, it is a result of logistics taking time to adapt to an unexpected surge in purchasing.

We are highly food-secure

Food security refers to the physical availability of food, and to whether people have the resources and opportunity to get reliable economic access to it.

Australia ranks among the most food secure nations in the world, and is in the top 10 countries for food affordability and availability.

Australians are wealthy by global standards and can choose from diverse and high-quality foods from all over the world at affordable prices.

Most Australians can afford to purchase healthy food that meets their nutritional needs, and as a result, Australia has the world’s equal-lowest level of undernourishment.

We import only 11% of our food

Most food and beverages consumed in Australia are produced in Australia.

But not everything that Australians like to eat is produced here. So we import about 11% of the food and beverages we consume by value.

The imports are mainly processed products (including coffee beans, frozen vegetables, seafood products, and beverages), along with small amounts of out-of-season fresh food.


Imported products account for 11% of expenditure on food and beverages

Imports of processed and fresh (primary) food and beverages, as a share of total food and beverage consumption (including tobacco and alcohol) by value, three year average 2016-17 to 2018-19. Does not include takeaway and restaurant meals.
ABS 5368.0, 5204.0

It is possible that disruptions to food imports from COVID-19 (or something else) could result in temporary shortages of some products, restricting consumer choice in the same way as cyclones have restricted access to Australian bananas.

It would be unlikely to have a material impact on food security – in terms of ensuring a sufficient supply of healthy and nutritious food, even if higher prices for or limited availability of specific products disappoints or inconveniences some consumers.

Australia produces more food than it consumes

Australia typically exports about 70% of agricultural production.

The level of exports varies across sectors. Some of our largest industries, such as beef and wheat, are heavily export-focused. Others, like horticulture, pork and poultry, sell most of their products in Australia, with an emphasis on supplying fresh produce.


Most Australian agricultural production is export oriented

Share of agricultural production exported by sector, 3 year average, 2015-16 to 2017-18.
Source: ABARES 2020

Australia’s large exports, even in severe drought years, act as a shock absorber for domestic supply.

They allow domestic consumption to remain stable while exports vary, absorbing the ups and downs associated with Australia’s variable climate and seasonal conditions.


Domestic food consumption is stable, while agricultural exports vary

Domestic consumption and export estimates for wheat, beef, rice, fruit and nuts, 2006-07 to 2020-21. Fruit and nuts covers table grapes, apples, pears, oranges, mandarins, peaches, mangoes, bananas, almonds and macadamias. f = forecast.
Source: ABARES 2020

The outlook for rain is good

After a hot and dry 2019 and widespread drought conditions in NSW and Queensland, above-average recent rains and positive forecasts provide the basis for the best start to Australia’s agricultural production season in years.

While current prospects for winter crops are good, more rain is required for these to be realised.

The Bureau is forecasting that grain production is likely to return to close to average levels, with a significant chance of higher production given the good start to the winter cropping season.


Wetter than average conditions are likely across agricultural areas from May to July 2020

Map shows chance of exceeding median rainfall for the period May to July 2020, showing above average rainfall is likely or very likely across all inland areas of Australia, including the wheat sheep zone.
Source: BOM, April 9, 2020

For livestock producers, better seasonal conditions provide the opportunity to rebuild herds and flocks following a relatively long period of destocking.

Our access to food is secure

Australia is one of the most food-secure countries in the world, with ample supplies of safe, healthy food. The vast majority of it is produced here in Australia, and domestic production more than meets our needs, even in drought years.

While we import about 11% of our food and beverages, disruptions to these imports would not threaten the food security of most Australians.

The Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences is forecasting a return to close to average levels of grain production, with a significant chance of higher production, given the good start to the winter cropping season.




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The analysis released today explores related issues in more depth, including the contribution of irrigated agriculture to Australian food security, levels of global grain stocks, and the contributions of international trade and Australian exports to food security in other countries.

Australia’s agricultural producers do rely on global supply chains and imported inputs. Shortages or disruptions to these inputs have not yet been significant or widespread, but could reduce productivity and profitability.

While action is already in train to address key issues, it will be important for business and government to continue actively monitoring and managing these risks.The Conversation

Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Peter Gooday, Acting Executive Director Agriculture, Water, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Turning to Easter eggs to get through these dark times? Here’s the bitter truth about chocolate



Pxfuel

Stephanie Perkiss, University of Wollongong; Cristiana Bernardi, The Open University, and John Dumay, Macquarie University

The coronavirus might make Easter celebrations a little subdued this year, but that doesn’t mean going without chocolate eggs. In fact, South Australia’s chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier reportedly said people should partake in the Easter treats “to cheer ourselves up … I’ve certainly got a good supply of chocolate eggs already”.

But before you fill your shopping trolley (online or virtual) with chocolate, we urge you to think twice about whether it’s ethically produced.




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Most chocolate consumed globally, including in Australia, comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana in West Africa – which together account for about 60% of global cocoa supply.

Cocoa farming is a major driver of deforestation in the region. Despite growing global demand for chocolate, farmers live in poverty, and child labour continues to plague the industry.

More work is needed by big chocolate companies to ensure cocoa is produced sustainably and fairly.
CHRISTOF KRACKHARDT

Spotlight on Nestlé

The US Department of Labor has estimated that 2 million children carry out hazardous work on cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Our research has examined Nestlé, which claims its chocolate produced for specific markets is sustainably sourced and produced. A number of its chocolate products are certified through the UTZ and Fairtrade schemes.

Nestlé has adopted the Fair Labor Association (FLA) code of conduct that forbids child or forced child labour, and requires certain health and safety standards, reasonable hours of work and fair pay. Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan also outlines the company’s commitment to sustainability in its Ivory Coast cocoa supply chain.




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But a 2016 FLA report said 80% of Nestlé’s cocoa procurement took place outside this plan. Of this part of the supply chain, just 30% was monitored by certification systems.

For the 70% of Nestlé cocoa farms outside certification programs, there was no evidence of training on labour standards or monitoring of working conditions. Assessors also found issues such as child labour, and health and safety issues.

More recently, Nestlé has stated its cocoa plan now covers 44% of its global cocoa supply, and the company is committed to sourcing 100% of cocoa under the plan by 2025.

On the issue of child labour, Nestlé last year reported it was “not proud” to have found more than 18,000 children doing hazardous work since a monitoring and remediation system began in 2012.

However the company would continue trying to eradicate the practice, including “helping children to stop doing unacceptable activities and, where needed, helping them to access quality education.”

Cocoa producers in West Africa are often poorly paid and subject to dangerous working conditions.
Wikimedia

Sweet sorrow: an industry problem

Other big chocolate players, such as Mars, Cadbury (owned by Mondelēz International), Hershey and Ferrero are also exposed to problems facing cocoa farming.

Many are taking action. Mars recently supported Ghana and the Ivory Coast in setting a floor price for cocoa, to increase the money paid to farmers.

In 2012, Ferrero promised to remove slavery from its cocoa supply by 2020.

Others have made moves towards better certification, including Hershey, which says it pays certification premiums to farmer groups who meet labour standards.

But despite years of pledges, progress across the sector is slow. The Washington Post last year reported major chocolate companies had missed deadlines to remove child labour from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. It said brands such as Hershey, Mars and Nestlé could still not guarantee their chocolates were produced without child labour.

Child labour issues continue to plague the chocolate industry.
Public Domain Pictures

Bad for the planet

Cocoa farming is a major driver of deforestation as farmers cut down trees to clear farmland. For example in 2017, the Guardian reported cocoa traders selling to Mars, Nestlé, Mondelez and other big brands had sourced beans grown illegally inside protected rainforest areas in the Ivory Coast.

Rising demand for chocolate – particularly in India and China – also encourages farmers to increase cocoa yield by using fertilisers and pesticides.

A 2018 study found the chocolate industry in the UK produces the equivalent of more than 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. It took into account chocolate’s ingredients, manufacturing, packaging and waste.

And research last year by the CSIRO showed it takes 21 litres of water to produce a small chocolate bar.




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In response to the problem, Mars and Nestlé have pledged to make their cocoa supply chain sustainable by 2025. Ferrero has committed to source 100% sustainable cocoa beans by 2020, and Mondelēz intends to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% by 2025, based on 2018 levels.

But pledges do not necessarily transform into action. At a United Nations climate change conference in November 2017, big chocolate producers and the governments of Ghana and the Ivory Coast committed to stopping deforestation for cocoa production. A year later, satellite mapping reportedly revealed thousands more hectares of rainforest in West Africa had been razed.


Wikimedia

What’s a chocolate lover to do?

Given the above, you might be tempted to stop buying chocolate brands that source cocoa from West Africa. But this would cut off the incomes of poor cocoa farmers.

Instead, choose chocolate independently certified by the Rainforest Alliance, UTZ or Fairtrade. This increases the chance that the cocoa was produced with minimal environmental damage, and workers are treated well.

If you can, check if the company has direct connections with producers, which means farmers are more likely to be fairly paid.

If all this sounds too hard to work out yourself, websites such as The Good Shopping guide, Ethical Consumer or Shop ethical! can help you find Easter eggs that are both ethically made, and delicious.




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It takes 21 litres of water to produce a small chocolate bar. How water-wise is your diet?


The Conversation


Stephanie Perkiss, Senior Lecturer, University of Wollongong; Cristiana Bernardi, Lecturer in Accounting, The Open University, and John Dumay, Associate Professor – Department of Accounting and Corporate Governance, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘How will we eat’? India’s coronavirus lockdown threatens millions with severe hardship



HARISH TYAGI/EPA

Craig Jeffrey, University of Melbourne; Febe De Geest, University of Melbourne, and Jane Dyson, University of Melbourne

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown for India’s 1.3 billion people. With just four hours’ notice, the government instructed everyone to remain in their homes, banned public events, closed schools and colleges and shut commercial and industrial outlets across the country.

The World Health Organisation has praised Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The lockdown may also be crucial in preventing the spread of the virus.

But the recent move to prevent community transmission is having an enormous impact on those most in need in India – the hundreds of millions who live in poverty.

The Uttar Pradesh government has arranged for 1,000 buses for migrant labourers as hundreds of them started walking to their villages on foot.
Stringer/EPA

Food aid from government ‘feels like a joke’

Over 90% of India’s 500 million non-agricultural workers are employed in the informal economy, for example, as construction workers, food vendors, rickshaw drivers or in sales. After the lockdown was announced, many people found their industries or operations had closed, or new rules about travel and social distancing prevented them from working.

One such individual, Anand, belongs to an adivasi, or tribal, migrant community living in a slum colony in the outskirts of Nagpur, a city in Maharashtra, central India. We met Anand (all names in the story are pseudonyms) in the context of research we have been undertaking on social transformation in contemporary India.




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Since the start of the lockdown, Anand has not been allowed to work in his usual job, cutting trees. Like most others in the informal economy, he relies on his daily wages and has no employment rights, paid leave, insurance or savings.

With no regular access to clean water or even soap, Anand is concerned about COVID-19. He his even more worried about hunger.

I’m so afraid. How long will this last for? If we can’t go to work, how will we get money? And if we don’t have money, how will we eat?

Last week, the federal government announced direct cash transfers to poorer households, mainly through existing government schemes, and provided the elderly, widows and disabled people pension payments for three months in advance.

Two days later, Modi established a Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES fund) to solicit donations from companies and individuals to help those in need.

Several state governments, including Maharashtra, are engaged in similar measures, offering cash transfers and free food to the poor.




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But the amounts of money and food provided through government initiatives are insufficient and sometimes delivered slowly. Many migrants are also not formally registered to receive support through existing schemes. Instead, they have to rely on NGOs or find some way to “make do” themselves.

Anand has been relying in recent days on a local NGO, which delivers a small bag of food to feed his family of six. Commenting on the tiny parcels that arrive, he said: “It feels like a joke.”

Rural communities worries about returning migrants

There are millions in similar situations across India. Yogesh is a rickshaw driver living on the outskirts of Meerut, a city in Uttar Pradesh, not far from New Delhi. He told us that when his work dries up, “even my shit stops.”

The Uttar Pradesh government has promised one-off cash transfers to its residents, but these amount to just 1,000 rupees, or roughly A$21.50, which is hardly enough to feed a family for five days.

Anand and Yogesh still had some form of shelter, but since the lockdown a large number of India’s enormous migrant worker population – many of whom receive housing through their employer – have become homeless.




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India’s coronavirus lockdown will hit women and migrant workers hardest


In Delhi, night shelters are grossly overcrowded and thousands of people are stranded at bus and train stations. Many have begun walking home, often journeys of hundreds of kilometres, only to be forced to return to the cities.

Workers spray disinfectant inside a building compound in Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir.
FAROOQ KHAN/EPA

These struggles are not confined to urban areas. Vandita, who we also know well through our research, lives in a remote village in the Himalayas. As a subsistence farmer, she has some stores of food and even some savings. But the lockdown scares her.

Last year’s crop stores are running dangerously low, and the spring harvest in the mountains is still some months away. Social distancing measures restrict effective agricultural work, particularly the cooperative labour groups so essential to survival in these harsh environments and for the social lives of rural women.

Disrupted supply chains is also making it increasingly difficult to find food to buy at the markets.

The sense of fear and uncertainty is already affecting people’s mental health. Vandita speaks about growing rates of depression as isolation measures disrupt the collective work and cohesion on which the social and economic life of the village depends.

If migrant labourers return from the cities, Vandita predicts her village will be “in crisis”. Like other villagers, she lacks access to decent health care. Reaching the nearest major hospital would be a journey of several days. If there was an outbreak of coronavirus in the village, it would have rapid and tragic consequences.

India has so far avoided the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though there has been a spike of cases in recent days. The short-term security of people like Anand, Yohesh and Vandita will depend on the capacity of government to expand its distribution of support.

For many of India’s poor, time is running out.The Conversation

Craig Jeffrey, Director and CEO of the Australia India Institute; Professor of Development Geography, University of Melbourne; Febe De Geest, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne, and Jane Dyson, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus: it’s tempting to drink your worries away but there are healthier ways to manage stress and keep your drinking in check



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Nicole Lee, Curtin University; Genevieve Dingle, The University of Queensland, and Sonja Pohlman, University of Newcastle

Bottle shops remain on the list of essential services allowed to stay open and Australians are stocking up on alcohol.

In these difficult times, it’s not surprising some people are looking to alcohol for a little stress reduction. But there are healthier ways of coping with the challenges we currently face.

Why do we drink more in a crisis?

People who feel stressed tend to drink more than people who are less stressed. In fact, we often see increases in people’s alcohol consumption after catastrophes and natural disasters.

Although alcohol initially helps us relax, after drinking, you can feel even more anxious. Alcohol releases chemicals in the brain that block anxiety. But our brain likes to be in balance. So after drinking, it reduces the amount of these chemicals to try to get back into pre-drinking balance, increasing feelings of anxiety.

People may also be drinking more alcohol to relieve the boredom that may come with staying at home without much to do.

What happens when we drink more?

Alcohol affects your ability to fight disease

Alcohol impacts the immune system, increasing the risk of illness and infections.

Although the coronavirus is too new for us to know its exact interaction with alcohol, we know from other virus outbreaks drinking affects how your immune system works, making us more susceptible to virus infection.

So, if you have the coronavirus, or are at risk of contracting it, you should limit your alcohol intake to give your immune system the best chance of fighting it off. The same applies if you have influenza or the common cold this winter.

Alcohol affects your mood

Drinking can affect your mood, making you prone to symptoms of depression and anxiety.

This is because alcohol has a depressant effect on your central nervous system. But when you stop drinking and the level of alcohol in your blood returns to zero, your nervous system becomes overactive. That can leave you feeling agitated.




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Alcohol affects your sleep

Alcohol can disrupt sleep. You may fall asleep more quickly from the sedating effects of alcohol, but as your body processes alcohol, the sedative effects wear off.

You might wake up through the night and find it hard to fall back to sleep (not to mention the potential for snoring or extra nocturnal bathroom trips).

The next day, you can be left feeling increasingly anxious, which can kickstart the process all over again.




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Alcohol affects your thoughts and feelings

Alcohol reduces our capacity to monitor and regulate our thoughts and feelings.

Once we start drinking, it’s hard to know when we’re relaxed enough. After one or two drinks, it’s easy to think “another won’t hurt”, “I deserve it”, or “I’ve had a huge day managing the kids and working from home, so why not?”.

It’s easy to think, ‘another won’t hurt’ when we’ve already had a drink or two.
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But by increasing alcohol consumption over time, eventually it takes more alcohol to get to the same point of relaxation. Developing this kind of tolerance to alcohol can lead to dependence.

Alcohol ties up the health system

Alcohol related problems also take up a lot of health resources, including ambulances and emergency departments. People have more accidents when they are drinking. And drinking can increase the risk of domestic and family violence.

So an increase in drinking risks unnecessarily tying up emergency services and hospitals, which are needed to respond to the coronavirus.




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How to manage your alcohol consumption

Don’t stock up on alcohol. The more you have in the house, the more likely you are to drink. Increased access to alcohol also increases the risk of young people drinking.

Monitor your drinking. If you are getting on board with the new virtual happy hour trend, the same rules apply if you were at your favourite bar.




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Try to stay within the draft Australian guidelines of no more than four standard drinks in any one day and no more than ten a week.

Monitor your thinking. It’s easy to think “What does it matter if I have an extra one or two?”. Any changes to your drinking habits now can become a pattern in the future.

How to manage stress without alcohol

If you are feeling anxious, stressed, down or bored, you’re not alone. But there are other healthier ways to manage those feelings.

If you catch yourself worrying, try to remind yourself this is a temporary situation. Do some mindfulness meditation or slow your breathing, distract yourself with something enjoyable, or practise gratitude.




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Get as much exercise as you can. Exercise releases brain chemicals that make you feel good. Even if you can’t get into your normal exercise routine, go outside for a walk or run. Walk to your local shops to pick up supplies instead of driving.

Maintain a good diet. We know good nutrition is important to maintain good mental health.

Try to get as much sleep as you can. Worry can disrupt sleep and lack of sleep can worsen mental health.

Build in pleasant activities to your day. Even if you can’t do the usual activities that bring a smile to your face, think about some new things you might enjoy and make sure you do one of those things every day.




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Remember, change doesn’t have to be negative. Novelty activates the dopamine system, our pleasure centre, so it’s a great time to try something new.

So enjoy a drink or two, but try not to go overboard and monitor your stress levels to give you the best chance to stay healthy.


If you are trying to manage your drinking, Hello Sunday Morning offers a free online community of more than 100,000 like-minded people. You can connect and chat with others actively managing their alcohol consumption.

If you’d like to talk to someone about your drinking call the National Alcohol and Other Drug Hotline on 1800 250 015. It’s a free call from anywhere in Australia. Or talk to your GP.The Conversation

Nicole Lee, Professor at the National Drug Research Institute (Melbourne), Curtin University; Genevieve Dingle, Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology, The University of Queensland, and Sonja Pohlman, Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Frozen, canned or fermented: when you can’t shop often for fresh vegetables, what are the best alternatives?



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Jesse Beasley, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, University of Melbourne

If you’re trying to reduce your trips to the shops as you practise social distancing and contribute to “flattening the curve” of the coronavirus spread, you might be wondering what it means for your vegetable crisper.

Fresh vegetables need replacing often and, thanks to panic buying, there’s no guarantee you’ll find your favourite fresh foods in your local supermarket.

The good news is there are some really nutritious alternatives to fresh vegetables, and the old adage that “fresh is best” isn’t always true.

How to ‘flatten the curve’. Video by the Australian Academy of Science.

Even before coronavirus, vegetables were getting pricier

Fresh vegetable prices have been increasing on average 2% per year over the past decade.

In Australia, vegetable prices are expected to increase 20-50% over the coming months due to drought and the recent bushfires.

Cauliflower, broccoli, green leafy vegetables, and root vegetables such as potatoes and pumpkins are expected to be hardest hit.

We should therefore all be thinking of ways to maximise the shelf life of our fresh veggies. In addition, it’s important not to forget the value of frozen, canned and fermented alternatives.




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Don’t skip the veggies, even in a pandemic

Australian dietary guidelines recommend daily consumption of different types and colours of vegetables. However, these guidelines don’t say in what form these veggies should be eaten.

Fresh vegetables are at their most nutritious (and often cheapest) when they are recently harvested and in season, which is not always the case on supermarket shelves.

Long transport times and poor storage conditions can also reduce the nutritional quality of fresh vegetables.

The upshot is that frozen and fermented vegetables can provide the same nutrition as fresh alternatives, especially as they’re often harvested in season and snap-frozen or fermented soon after picking.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to remember vegetables are not only nutritious – they can also reduce the risk of cancer and improve your gut microbiome.

Frozen and fermented vegetables can provide the same nutrition as fresh alternatives.
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Fresh vs frozen vegetables

The shelf life of fresh vegetables is generally short (3-14 days) even when refrigerated. Freezing, on the other hand, can preserve the nutritional quality of vegetables and increase their shelf life to up to 12 months.

In some cases, frozen vegetables have a higher nutritional quality than fresh vegetables, particularly if there is a short time between harvesting and freezing.

Nevertheless, some nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin C are vulnerable to the freezing process. One study found higher levels of vitamin C in fresh capsicum, carrot, parsley and spinach relative to frozen alternatives.

Variation in the freezing process, storage conditions and temperature can also change the quality of vegetables.

For example, ice crystals that form during freezing can damage the internal cell structure of potatoes and negatively affect their texture.

If you want to freeze vegetables yourself, select those that are fresh, undamaged and in season and blanch them quickly before freezing. This helps retain colour, flavour and nutritional quality.

Some vegetables such as tomato, capsicum and corn do not need to be blanched before freezing.

Blanching and freezing fresh veggies is a great way to improve shelf life.
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Canned and fermented vegetables

Canning and/or fermentation can extend the shelf life of vegetables to between one and five years.

Canned vegetables generally have a similar nutritional profile to fresh vegetables, particularly when it comes to minerals and fibre. However, certain steps in the process (such as peeling) may lead to some nutritional loss.

Just remember that once opened, canned vegetables should be stored in a separate container and consumed within three days.

Fermented vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut not only taste delicious, they have a range of health benefits and are packed with beneficial probiotics.

During fermentation, microorganisms convert the carbohydrates in veggies into alcohol and/or acids that act as natural preservatives (extending shelf life) and can improve the digestibility of starch and protein.

Fermented vegetables are also full of antioxidants and adding extra ingredients like ginger, chilli and garlic can make them an even more nutritious choice.

To reap the full benefits, ferment veggies yourself or choose refrigerated fermented vegetables at the shops (unrefrigerated versions are pasteurised and can have lower probiotic benefits).

Keep calm and eat veggies

Vegetables are a great source of essential nutrients and Australians should aim to eat a wide variety of them each day.

By including fresh, frozen, canned and fermented vegetables in our diet, we not only give our bodies a boost, but help to take pressure off Australian growers to produce high quality and seasonal vegetables all year round.

The vast majority of Australians don’t eat enough vegetables, and these nutritious and tasty alternatives could be the key to improving our overall health – at a time when we need it most.The Conversation

Jesse Beasley, PhD Student in BioSciences, University of Melbourne; Kate Howell, Senior Lecturer Food Chemistry, University of Melbourne; Nathan M D’Cunha, PhD Candidate, University of Canberra; Nenad Naumovski, Associate Professor in Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Canberra, and Senaka Ranadheera, Lecturer, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Snakes make good food. Banning farms won’t help the fight against coronavirus


Daniel Natusch, Macquarie University; Graham Alexander, University of the Witwatersrand; Ngo Van Tri, and Patrick Aust, University of Oxford

The wildlife trade has long been closely linked to disease outbreaks. It has been implicated in the SARS epidemic of 2002, Ebola in 2013 and now in the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, China has tentatively banned the farming of many wildlife species. The move has been celebrated by many in the international community.

But our work in Asia over the past ten years tells a different story. Banning legitimate snake farms might prove counterproductive to disease suppression.

Though snakes were early suspects as the source of the Wuhan coronavirus, reptiles have never been linked to any of the World Health Organisation’s top ten infectious diseases which pose the greatest threat of epidemics.

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Snakes are different

One reason is straightforward. Snakes are cold-blooded (more correctly “ectothermic”) and have a very different physiology to humans. Viruses co-evolve highly specialised relationships with their hosts and are often species-specific.

Occasionally, a chance mutation might allow a virus to infect another species, but the more different the new and old hosts are to each other, the less likely that is.

Compared with transmission between mammals, or even from birds to mammals, the probability of a virus crossing from a cold-blooded reptile to a warm-blooded human is remote.

In parts of Asia where H5N1-type viral outbreaks such as bird and swine flu are now endemic, hundreds of snake farmers rely on waste protein such as pork and poultry by-products as feed.




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Disease outbreaks regularly wreak havoc with conventional livestock industries but never, to our knowledge, with snake farming.

In this context, reptiles represent a natural biological barrier to viral diseases.

They enable farmers to build financial resilience through diversity, dampening the many risks associated with livestock monocultures.

And the benefits don’t end there.

They’re tailor-made for sustainability

Commercial snake farming has developed rapidly in China. The first experimental farms were set up in 2007; by 2019 the industry was producing large-scale high-quality protein.

Some snakes have highly desirable agricultural traits including rapid growth, early maturation and rapid reproduction. They are comparatively simple cognitively, and do not suffer the complex behavioural stresses seen in many caged birds and mammals.

Many are semi-arboreal, spending time in trees, allowing farms to maximise available space.

They do require a high-protein diet but, since their cold-blooded metabolic demands are very low (less than 10% of similar-sized mammals), food can be more directly channelled to growth.

The energy efficiency is achieved mainly by employing solar energy (e.g., basking) to drive metabolic processes, and by powerful digestive systems capable of breaking down even bone.

It means they produce low volumes of biological waste and greenhouse gases, and require minimal fresh water.




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Chinese snake farms rely on two principal sources of feed inputs: waste protein from agricultural food chains, and natural prey such as harvested rodents.

This means they both recycle agricultural waste and control economically important rodent pests.

Their cold-blooded physiology allows them to survive for considerable time without food and water – far longer than similarly-sized warm blooded animals.

This allows farmers to effectively exploit seasonal abundances during times of plenty, and downscale inputs during times of famine.

Snake farming therefore provides a resilient livelihood in the face of economic volatility and the extremes of Climate Change.

It would be a shame if concern about coronavirus snuffed out an industry that is unlikely to be the problem, but could very well be a solution.The Conversation

Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University; Graham Alexander, Professor of Herpetology, Environmental Physiology and Physiology, Ecology and Evolution, University of the Witwatersrand; Ngo Van Tri, Conservation biologist, Institute of Tropical Biology, and Patrick Aust, Research Associate, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

5 ways nutrition could help your immune system fight off the coronavirus



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Clare Collins, University of Newcastle

The coronavirus presents many uncertainties, and none of us can completely eliminate our risk of getting COVID-19. But one thing we can do is eat as healthily as possible.

If we do catch COVID-19, our immune system is responsible for fighting it. Research shows improving nutrition helps support optimal immune function.

Micronutrients essential to fight infection include vitamins A, B, C, D, and E, and the minerals iron, selenium, and zinc.

Here’s what we know about how these nutrients support our immune system and the foods we can eat to get them.




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1. Vitamin A

Vitamin A maintains the structure of the cells in the skin, respiratory tract and gut. This forms a barrier and is your body’s first line of defence. If fighting infection was like a football game, vitamin A would be your forward line.

We also need vitamin A to help make antibodies which neutralise the pathogens that cause infection. This is like assigning more of your team to target an opposition player who has the ball, to prevent them scoring.

Vitamin A is found in oily fish, egg yolks, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains and legumes.

Further, vegetables contain beta-carotene, which your body can convert into vitamin A. Beta-carotene is found in leafy green vegetables and yellow and orange vegetables like pumpkin and carrots.

2. B vitamins

B vitamins, particularly B6, B9 and B12, contribute to your body’s first response once it has recognised a pathogen.

They do this by influencing the production and activity of “natural killer” cells. Natural killer cells work by causing infected cells to “implode”, a process called apoptosis.

At a football match, this role would be like security guards intercepting wayward spectators trying to run onto the field and disrupt play.

Fish is a good source of vitamin B6.
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B6 is found in cereals, legumes, green leafy vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish, chicken and meat.

B9 (folate) is abundant in green leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds and is added to commercial bread-making flour.

B12 (cyanocobalamin) is found in animal products, including eggs, meat and dairy, and also in fortified soy milk (check the nutrition information panel).

3. Vitamins C and E

When your body is fighting an infection, it experiences what’s called oxidative stress. Oxidative stress leads to the production of free radicals which can pierce cell walls, causing the contents to leak into tissues and exacerbating inflammation.

Vitamin C and vitamin E help protect cells from oxidative stress.




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Vitamin C also helps clean up this cellular mess by producing specialised cells to mount an immune response, including neutrophils, lymphocytes and phagocytes.

So the role of vitamin C here is a bit like cleaning up the football ground after the game.

Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, lemons, limes, berries, kiwifruit, broccoli, tomatoes and capsicum.

Vitamin E is found in nuts, green leafy vegetables and vegetables oils.

4. Vitamin D

Some immune cells need vitamin D to help destroy pathogens that cause infection.

Although sun exposure allows the body to produce vitamin D, food sources including eggs, fish and some milks and margarine brands may be fortified with Vitamin D (meaning extra has been added).

Most people need just a few minutes outdoors most days.

People with vitamin D deficiency may need supplements. A review of 25 studies found vitamin D supplements can help protect against acute respiratory infections, particularly among people who are deficient.

5. Iron, zinc, selenium

We need iron, zinc and selenium for immune cell growth, among other functions.

Iron helps kill pathogens by increasing the number of free radicals that can destroy them. It also regulates enzyme reactions essential for immune cells to recognise and target pathogens.

Whole grain foods contain a variety of important nutrients.
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Zinc helps maintain the integrity of the skin and mucous membranes. Zinc and selenium also act as an antioxidant, helping mop up some of the damage caused by oxidative stress.

Iron is found in meat, chicken and fish. Vegetarian sources include legumes, whole grains and iron-fortified breakfast cereals.

Zinc is found in oysters and other seafood, meat, chicken, dried beans and nuts.

Nuts (especially Brazil nuts), meat, cereals and mushrooms are good food sources of selenium.




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Putting it all together

It’s true some supermarkets are out of certain products at the moment. But as much as possible, focus on eating a variety of foods within each of the basic food groups to boost your intake of vitamins and minerals.

While vitamin and mineral supplements are not recommended for the general population, there are some exceptions.

Pregnant women, some people with chronic health conditions, and people with conditions that mean they can’t eat properly or are on very restrictive diets, may need specific supplements. Talk to your doctor, Accredited Practising Dietitian or pharmacist.




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And beyond diet, there are other measures you can take to stay as healthy as possible in the face of coronavirus.

Stop smoking to improve your lung’s ability to fight infection, perform moderate intensity exercise like brisk walking, get enough sleep, practise social distancing and wash your hands with soap regularly.The Conversation

Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.