By Katherine Lambert, MS, CNS, LDN
Thinking about how it will be when social distancing restrictions are lifted can be concerning. There are still many unknowns about the nature of this virus and the risks we face. There are weeks to go before we can get back to “normal” and it is a great time to be ensuring that your immune health is optimized.
How can we best go into this “new normal” to protect ourselves and our families? Our immune system relies on the compounds in food to function. The most powerful tool for your immune health is in the foods you eat!
For optimal protection against infections the necessary nutrients we need like vitamins C and A, zinc, Omega 3 fats and quercitin all come from nutrient-dense foods. Additionally, the health of our gut is also key as about 70% of our immune function is found in the gut. The gut is one of the primary regulators of our immune function and out first line of defense against pathogens.
Here are some great ways to use food to bolster the immune system:
- Eat whole foods.
If a packaged food has more than 5 ingredients or words that you don’t recognize as food put it back on the shelf (or take it out of your grocery order). Your body has evolved to recognize and use the compounds found in real food in its whole form.
- Eat the rainbow every day!
Have multiple servings daily of colorful fruits and vegetables. Aim for 2 servings of colorful fruit and 6 servings of vegetables daily. A serving is about ½ cup. These are high in the vitamins and phytonutrients that support immune function. More color = more nutrient density. Blueberries, cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard and kale, red, yellow and orange bell peppers, sweet potatoes, red and green cabbage. Frozen vegetables can be your friend at this time – especially for some of those vegetables with a short shelf life like spinach. Choose organic if you can.
- Add lots of ginger, garlic, onions, mushrooms and spices like rosemary, turmeric and oregano to your meals.
These foods are known to have anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting components. Use them in soups and with those colorful vegetables and fruits. Roasting or slow-cooking onions can make them appealing even for the picky eater!
- Eat foods that support the gut’s microbiome.
Sauerkraut, kimchi, naturally fermented pickles, unsweetened bio-active yogurt, kefir and miso are good choices. And include lots of prebiotic foods which feed the helpful bacteria in our digestive system. Some of these are asparagus, green-tipped bananas, artichokes, leeks, onions, garlic and flax seeds.
- Cut out sugar and refined starches that convert to sugar in your body.
Research has shown that sugar suppresses immune function for up to 5 hours with lowest function after 2 hours. What this means is that if there is exposure to a pathogenic virus or bacteria after consuming sugar the risks are higher.
While this is a difficult time for many of us, try not to succumb to the thinking that this is a time to eat comfort foods and packaged foods.