Why Resilience and Nutrition Matter Now, According to COVID-19 Survivors
Above: Veteran journalist Howie Severino biking with friends back in 2019, before the pandemic
The uncomfortable truth is that despite having dealt with COVID-19 for over half a year now, there’s still so much we don’t know about it. Not least of these matters is how differently our bodies respond to the disease.
The range is wide: For some, COVID-19 can be fatal within days of the first symptoms. For others, it’s entirely possible to be infected without feeling so much as a cold. Some infected people recover faster and deal with the disease better, too.
We know that co-morbidities like heart disease, asthma, and other conditions; as well as age, have a significant impact on the severity of COVID-19. But apart from these, the jury’s still out on exactly why COVID-19 has such drastically varied effects among different people.
Howie Severino, a documentary filmmaker and TV host, is one of the survivors of COVID-19 in the Philippines. As Patient 2828, the 59-year-old first experienced fever in mid-March. His struggle was physical as much as it was mental and emotional. Infected in the early months of the pandemic, the journalist did not have much to compare his experience to.
“I was delirious and thought I was dying, I was alone,” he says. “This is a unique disease because of the solitude and loneliness—you can’t receive visitors; you’re cut from the physical presence of anyone familiar.”
Suffering alone from an unfamiliar disease that by then had already claimed many lives, Severino felt an overdrive of emotions, as he was attended to by a parade of nurses whose faces were covered by masks. It was a terrifying experience, even for a journalist who’s had his share of crazy assignments.
“I called my wife to say goodbye, but she wouldn’t accept that. She convinced me that I had a good chance of survival,” he says. “She was right.” In a clip from Severino’s documentary for GMA News about his brush with COVID-19, she urged him to pray. “I knew that it was more his emotions,” she says. “His vital signs were good.”
Severino thinks that his physical fitness must have been a factor. Now nearing 60, he’s still an avid cyclist, and is a healthy eater. He had none of the pre-existing conditions that put other COVID-19 patients at risk, thanks to a lifetime of keeping active and eating healthy.
A former restaurateur, Severino learned to cook during his graduate school days in England, where he missed Filipino food. At home, he eats vegetables and fruits, and sometimes he’d indulge in fish and chicken. Very rarely would he go for red meat. “We do a lot of Mexican and Mediterranean dishes,” he shares. “My wife cooks a lot, and we only use quality and healthy ingredients in our dishes.”
In a Facebook post, the veteran journalist shared his thoughts. “Immunity is not forever, I’ve been told by my doctor,” he wrote. “Despite all the dire news about former patients suffering from lingering effects of the virus, I’ve been feeling great. I’m eating healthy, working out, and biking (and even briefly apprehended while biking, but that’s another story).”
Manuel and Marie Dhel Lima, a couple both in their late 30s, have been well aware of COVID-19 and its effects, but had never thought that they would catch it themselves. Then they were diagnosed with it in July.
One day, Manuel was rushed to the emergency room because he was experiencing breathing problems, which he thought were due to his nasal polyps. Later, he was told that he had COVID-19.
“We never thought that it was COVID,” says Marie Dhel. “We had been very careful, since we have two kids. We cleaned the house every day. We had gallons of alcohol, we had complete vitamins, nobody smokes, we exercise. We had very minimal encounters and interactions outside of our home. We only went out for groceries.”
Both asymptomatic, the couple were told to stay home and isolate. They both managed to recover without serious intervention, and in retrospect, they credit their healthy diets. “We made healthy meals every single day,” Marie Dhel says. “Especially because of the children. We have been cooking at home since lockdown, using only healthy ingredients like fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, and olive oil, making sure we have a balanced diet.”
In mid-March, a 35-year-old events manager experienced muscle aches, but didn’t think much of it. Later, in July, he underwent a rapid antibody test and PCR swab, as required by his company. His results came out negative for the virus, but showed that he had antibodies, suggesting that he had prior infection without his knowledge. He thinks that his healthy lifestyle may have kept the usual symptoms at bay.
“I made a lifestyle change after being diagnosed with high cholesterol a few years ago,” he shares. “My doctor advised me to stay fit and eat healthy.”
The change in diet was nothing drastic. He just decided to switch things up by replacing ingredients, like olive oil instead of other oils for all his dishes. He ate high-fiber meals like oats, and stuck to a 30-minute workout regimen every day. “It made my immune system stronger,” he thinks.
At first, he was worried that such a switch would be tougher on his budget. But he realized that a bottle of olive oil, which can be used for a wide variety of dishes, is only about as costly as one cup of branded coffee.
Forget supplements that overpromise, or folk medicine that has had doctors up in arms. Your body’s response to COVID-19 may more likely depend on whether you’ve nourished or starved yourself of the right food.
The World Health Organization has encouraged “a robust and diverse food supply” as “an essential part of the health and nutrition response to COVID-19.” Having a healthy diet supports an effective immune system that may help protect against infection and other diseases.
Dr. Jose J. Gaforio, a professor of immunology at the University of Jaén in Spain, has long been an advocate of the benefits of exercise, as well as the one ingredient he and scientists believe in: olive oil. It sounds simple, but there’s evidence to suggest that switching to olive oil can make dishes healthy and tasty.
Eating healthy isn’t complicated. It’s not necessarily an overhaul of your diet, and you don’t need to peck on leaves for the rest of your life. That slab of steak you love? Drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil, instead of butter. Making pizza? Splash it with pomace olive oil. Sauteeing your adobo? Use pure olive oil. It’s an easy way to make your everyday dishes healthy and delicious. Plus, olive oil is a pretty easy ingredient to source. Look for Doña Elena’s Olive Oils in your local supermarket.
It will be a while before a cure or a vaccine can free us from the shackles of COVID-19, so in the meantime, stay home when you can, exercise, and eat healthy.
For more tips about Mediterranean diet and recipes you can try with Doña Elena Olive Oil, visit its official Facebook page.