By Joanne Gardner, MS, RDN, LDN, Integrative Nutritionist, Duke Integrative Medicine
Many of us are wondering what we can do to sustain optimal health during this pandemic. To start, consider steps to support the immune system balance. Think of your food as your health insurance policy. Although foods may not prevent you from getting sick, they help maintain your resilience and enable your body to recover quicker from stressors.
Some basic principles guide meal selection. Many of these are consistent with strategies for optimal day-to-day nutrition. Our food supply system is functioning quite well and, once we decide on a convenient and safe grocery shopping method, we’ll find that there is abundance. Since we are encouraged to shop less frequently, we need to manage our purchases to use what’s most perishable, add a dose of creativity and minimize food waste. As you make your list or order take-out, aim for a meal that includes the most health-supportive foods. There’s room for indulgences, however, this is the time to focus on very nourishing foods.
Vitamins A, C and D each play a very important role in supporting our immune system. Vitamin A, in the preformed version, is highest in liver and fish, followed by milk and eggs. The beta-carotene form is found in leafy green vegetables, orange and yellow vegetables or fruits and tomato products. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, red and green peppers, kiwifruit, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, potatoes (cooked with their skin on) and cantaloupe. If you’re getting outside for daytime walks, expose your face and arms to replenish your vitamin D reserve; it was probably drained over the winter months. If you’re not able to get out in the daylight, then assess if you’re consuming Vitamin D rich foods (including rainbow trout, sockeye salmon and fortified food products) or a Vitamin D3 supplement with 20-25 mcg or 800 to 1000 IU daily, for most people.
Our immune system depends on ample dietary protein. If you encountered bare grocery display cases for your favorite meat choices, consider this an opportunity to increase plant proteins and seafood. Nuts, seeds, beans, shellfish, and fish contribute protein, as well as zinc, another immune-supportive micronutrient. Canned salmon sardines and frozen fish all store well.
Buy an array of colorful fruits and vegetables. Check your grocery list for the rainbow of colors. They may be fresh, frozen or dried (look for unsweetened options including dried plums). Pink grapefruit and the cabbage family vegetables including broccoli, kale, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower, and radishes have additional immune-supportive benefits due to their phytochemicals such as naringenin and sulforaphane, respectively. If you can, eat at least some of those cruciferous vegetables raw for the maximum benefit; it’s okay to munch on them as you slice, dice and shred.
It is important to consider your mucus membrane integrity. These membranes line our respiratory system and our digestive system. These cells turn over quickly and provide a barrier against undesired intrusive microorganisms. Vitamin C facilitates mucosal cell regeneration. Your colorful, nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and bioactive essential for optimal mucosal cell resilience and repair.
Many fragrant herbs and spices will not only make your foods taste wonderful, but they can provide additional immune support. Garlic plays a leading role. South Asian and Latino flavor combinations are co-stars. These include cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, cumin, coriander, curry blends, oregano, and cilantro. Many savory herbs are beneficial for respiratory function including rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano. Dig into your spice stash and dash generous amounts onto your meals.
Attend to your digestive health, as it is another window to your immune system. The fiber from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains provides prebiotics to feed your beneficial microflora. Restore the beneficial organisms daily by consuming some form of cultured or fermented food such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, unpasteurized fermented vegetables. (Making these products in your kitchen is a great food science experiment for homeschooling).
Slice an apple or pear or peel and section a grapefruit, orange or tangerine. Dish up a handful of nuts.
Portion out raw or cooked carrots, pea pods, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, radishes or pepper strips with a dollop of hummus, bean dip, canned refried beans or nut butter.
Whirl up a smoothie to get a jump start on your fruit and vegetables for the day. (Recipe follows)
Plan meals to include two types of vegetables and when possible, eat one cooked and one raw. Boost the flavor with herbs and spices. When you’re bringing home take-out, include the vegetable salads and sides.
This is not an all-or-nothing eating plan. Do as much as you can. Each action you do is helpful. Use the ideas in this article to create your next grocery-shopping list and consider the suggestions below as a starting place.
Quick Read Key Points:
1. Fruits and vegetables provide essential immune supportive nutrients including Vitamin A and C.
2. Vitamin D may be at post-winter lows. Boost Vitamin D with sunlight or food sources.
3. Be generous with flavor-enhancing and immune-balancing herbs and spices.
4. Support your digestive health with high-fiber plant foods and beneficial bacteria from cultured and fermented foods.
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-HealthProfessional/ Accessed 4/2/2020
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminC-HealthProfessional/ Accessed 4/2/2020
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/ Accessed 4/2/2020
https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/ Accessed 4/2/2020
https://integrativemedicine.arizona.edu/COVID19/FAQ.html Accessed 4/2/2020
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