By Maggie Ireland, for The Gazette
As the pandemic forges on and flu season peaks, many people are hoping to focus on one of the few things they can control — and that is what they eat. If you’re hoping to boost your immunity and stay healthy, experts have some advice on what foods may help.
Terri Clark is a clinical outpatient dietitian at Mercy Medical Center in Cedar Rapids who helps clients develop healthy nutrition habits.
“I like a quote by Ann Wigmore — it says, ‘The food you eat can either be the most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.’ This really holds true for our health and how our bodies respond to the foods that we eat,” Clark said.
“Our immune system is a network of different cells and tissues in our body that work together to prevent disease and infection. Diet is one of the many factors that affects our immune system.”
As with many aspects of life, it’s all about balance.
“It’s important to get a variety of foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals,” Clark said. “They work together to help our immune system run smoothly.”
For starters, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein and healthy fats are essential.
“There’s no one nutrient that will provide immunity in itself, but zinc, selenium, iron, vitamins A, C, D and E, omega-3 fatty acids and phytonutrients — these all work together to build a healthy immune system,” Clark said.
Vitamin C is likely the vitamin people most commonly associate with the immune system. And for good reason, according to Stephanie Vande Brake, a dietitian for Hy-Vee in Cedar Rapids.
She recommends foods rich in vitamin C as it helps slow the aging process.
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In her role, Vande Brake meets with customers in person and virtually to answer questions and often makes specific recommendations.
“This time of year, the best budget-friendly picks in the produce aisle are citrus fruits, including clementines, grapefruit and oranges, to name a few,” Vande Brake said.
“Choose an orange that feels heavy for its size to indicate that it’s full of juices inside. Look for finely textured skin, and don’t worry so much about the color as it does not indicate ripeness or taste,” she added. “Avoid citrus fruits with soft spots or those that feel spongy — this indicates bruising.”
Vitamin A is also recommended and can be found in carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe and dark leafy greens.
As for vitamin D — Clark said this one can be trickier to get enough of through diet alone.
“I encourage people to check with their physician to see whether a vitamin D supplement might be a good option for them,” she said.
As for good sources of zinc and iron, Clark recommends nuts, seeds and dairy.
Protein, another essential element of a balanced, healthy diet, can come from many sources — but experts recommend being mindful about what proteins you consume.
“I really encourage people to choose lean meats like chicken, fish or beef that is grilled or baked with a marinade for flavoring,” Clark said. “More of a plant-based diet is a healthy choice — not vegetarian, but making meats and proteins more of a complement to the main dish of vegetables and fruits.”
Some sources of protein also can provide a good intake of fat.
“Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats proven to play a part in helping the immune system and decreasing inflammation,” Vande Brake said. “Salmon and tuna are two common fish high in omega-3 fats. Consider enjoying these seafood choices twice per week to optimize your body’s ability to fight off illness and disease.”
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While there are plenty of healthy options to choose from, it can be easy to eat too many processed foods, which can have a negative impact on your immunity.
The majority of Americans consume an excess of sugar, refined carbohydrates and saturated and trans-fats, Clark said.
“Pop, sweets and candy — it’s really important to be careful with how much you’re getting of those,” she said. “A diet high in processed foods or fast foods that are quick and easy to grab, tends to be higher in sodium and sugar and low in the nutrients your body needs.”
When you are looking to incorporate healthy eating habits, both Clark and Vande Brake recommend keeping things simple and focusing on eating whole foods.
“If a recipe is too difficult, we tend to put it off or make poor decisions,” Clark said. “For breakfast, maybe a slice of whole grain toast with avocado and cooked egg or Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and some chopped nuts. Lunch or dinner could be as simple as a soup filled with vegetables and beans.”
One major, but often overlooked, component of a healthy immune system is water.
“Make sure you’re drinking an adequate amount of water. When it’s cold outside, sometimes you don’t drink as much as you should,” Clark said. “That, along with getting adequate sleep and keeping your stress levels in check, will go a long way.”
Vande Brake added, “Choosing good healthy foods, getting moderate exercise daily and getting adequate sleep are pillars to optimizing your body’s defense against viruses, bacteria and inevitable aging.”