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Food As Medicine: Natural Ways to Boost Immunity

" Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food"


As we recover from the Holidays it’s easy to get wrapped up in everything that comes with our yearly traditions: Grandma’s Christmas cookies, Aunt Barb’s famous eggnog, the leftover green bean casserole your Mom insisted you take home. The list of tempting food goes on and on and on, and truthfully, the indulgences are never really contained to just one day. Of course, we all deserve to relax and indulge in our favorite foods from time to time, but when we notice that our indulgences begin to outweigh our healthful choices, it may be time to consider how food can become our fuel and our medicine. When you want to prevent an illness or notice you’re getting sick, the easiest solution may be to grab a Vitamin C or antioxidant supplement. After all, these are the nutrients that keep us healthy, right? While Vitamin C along with other antioxidants are known for their immune boosting properties, it is important to note that we absorb and utilize nutrients best when they come from whole food sources instead of a supplement. So, how can we best prepare our bodies and our immune system for the seemingly endless list of possible ailments?

1. Eat more fruit & vegetables: In general, all fruits and vegetables are good for us, so you can’t really go wrong with what you choose from this category (yes, even bananas). They provide us with antioxidants that fight toxins in our body, natural sugar for energy, water for hydration, and fiber for a healthy gut. Fruit & veggies that are high in Vitamins A, C, & E along with beta carotene are generally shown to fight infection and boost immunity. If you’re looking to kick a cold, some of your best options include citrus fruit, berries, kiwi, papaya, tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, and sweet potatoes. A great way to ensure that you are getting a variety of nutrients and antioxidants is by incorporating different colored fruits and vegetables regularly. Aim to eat at least 1 type of fruit or vegetable in all of your meals and give yourself an extra serving of veggies if you can.

2. Stay hydrated: Staying well hydrated is vital to not only our immune system, but our energy level, physical performance, mood, focus, food cravings, and digestion. Staying adequately hydrated can often be a more difficult task than we realize. Drinking 12-16 oz. first thing in the morning, keeping a water bottle with you, and infusing water with natural flavors like lemon, cucumber, or mint can be helpful ways to improve your water intake. Drinking unsweetened teas, specifically black and green tea, are also shown to boost hydration while enhancing immune function due to their high antioxidant compounds.

3. Spice it up: Common herbs and spices like garlic, ginger, turmeric, parsley, and cilantro are all shown to have immune boosting properties. In addition to their Vitamin C and antioxidant content, these herbs and spices provide us with anti-inflammatory compounds. Reducing inflammation in the body is one of the key elements in fighting infection and building a healthy immune system. Experimenting with herbs and spices in your cooking can be a great way to enhance flavor and your health.

4. Go nuts: In general, all nuts and seeds provide us with important nutrients and antioxidants along with healthy fat and fiber. Almonds and sunflower seeds specifically are packed with Vitamin E which is an antioxidant that supports and maintains immune system function. Because Vitamin E is a fat soluble vitamin, the healthy fat content in nuts and seeds contributes to enhanced absorption of this antioxidant as well. Try eating nuts and seeds as a snack or as a flavorful addition to meals.

5. Limit your added sugar intake: While it’s important to consider the good foods that we should incorporate to fuel our bodies, it is equally as important to remember how other foods may hinder our physical and mental health. As many of us are aware, there are plenty of foods that we should try to limit if we want to lead a healthier life, but sugar and refined carbs may be at the top of the list. While added sugars may contribute to weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease, these health issues can be precursors to a weakened immune system as well. In addition, added sugar and refined carbs can lead to inflammation in the body which can cause additional health issues along with a suppressed immune system. Switching out added sugar for natural sugar like fruit, avoiding added sugar and refined carbs in the morning, and increasing your protein intake throughout the day can be helpful ways to reduce sugar cravings. The suggested limit for added sugar per day is no more than 24 grams for women and 36 grams for men. To put that into perspective, the added sugar in a single Gatorade is 34 grams.

Eating a healthful diet may not always be at the top of our list, especially when you add work and kids and the continuous stressors of life to the mix. Setting small, manageable goals and making mindful food choices, however, is a great place to start if you are looking to make a change. As a dietitian I often get the question, “What is the most important part to a healthy diet?” My answer is always consistency and accountability. Whether you are looking to lose weight, increase your energy, live a healthier lifestyle, or build a stronger immune system, the same rule applies: You are what you eat.

- Chelsea Hoover, MS, RD, LDN


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