Nutrition During Pandemics
Susan Bowerman M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWN, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, Herbalife Nutrition
While we begin to emerge after several months of sheltering in place, many of us remain cautious when it comes to the one errand we’ve generally taken for granted: the grocery run.
With less frequent visits to the grocery store and continued time at home while restrictions ease, it’s easy to make selections that are not the healthiest or to be tempted by high-calorie comfort foods – which often contain too much fat, salt, and sugar.
When we make poor food choices, lacking vitamins, minerals, protein, and other important nutrients, we do little to support overall health. We can optimize nutrition by taking in the most nutrient-dense foods we can find.
Nutrients to Support the Immune System
As with every other system of the body, the immune system relies on proper nutrients to function.
Here are the top nutrients you should focus on, which deliver benefits to the entire body:
Protein helps the body build antibodies—although ingesting protein doesn’t make the immune system capable of building antibodies for any specific antigen. Healthy sources of protein to choose from include fish, poultry, lean meats, lentils, dairy products, and beans (particularly soybeans and soybean products such as tofu and tempeh).
- Vitamin C
Vitamin C is a crucial player in various aspects of the immune system, particularly immune cell function, supporting the production of antibodies. Good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, berries, citrus, tomatoes, and peppers.
- Vitamin A
Vitamin A is important for healthy skin and GI-tract cells. Vitamin A also supports the health of the tissues of the respiratory and digestive tracts. Many people do not realize that the immune system is influenced by the digestive tract and the importance of keeping those cells healthy. Foods high in vitamin A are carrots, spinach, peaches, pumpkin/winter squash, and tomatoes.
Phytonutrients, natural compounds found in plant foods, support the body’s oxidant defense system. Oxidative stress is something that occurs in the body naturally, as a process of everyday metabolism. As long as the body has plenty of antioxidants available, the level of oxidative stress in the body can be kept in check. But if there are inadequate antioxidants available and oxidative stress increases, it can weaken the body’s ability to fight off illness. Phytonutrients are found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables.
Certain fibers can also encourage the growth of good bacteria in your digestive tract. These beneficial bacteria support the immune system because can crowd out potentially harmful bacteria that might enter the digestive tract. You can get more fiber by including more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your diet. Use fruits and veggies as snacks, add them to smoothies, sandwiches, salads, soups, and stews, and replace refined grains with whole grains.
Probiotics (the good bacteria) support the health of the digestive system which, as previously mentioned, plays a role in supporting immune function. Fermented foods are great options that provide beneficial probiotics to the digestive system. Some fermented foods, like tempeh or Greek yogurt, are also excellent sources of plant-based protein and have a relatively long shelf life.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Finally, omega-3 fatty acids are healthy and essential types of fat which can be found in food such as fatty fish. Omega-3 fatty acids may enhance the function of immune cells, although research in this area is still developing.
Eating for Wellness
Invest in nutrient-dense foods and take care of yourself and your body.
Here are some more healthy eating tips for you and your family:
- Plan your grocery list ahead of time.
- Learn a few recipes for simple, healthy dishes.
- Add more fruits and vegetables into your diet.
- Be selective with your indulgences and avoid stress eating.
- Keep portions small and eat as well as you can.
Prioritize important nutrients and start developing healthier habits. Take this time to get creative in the kitchen, and you may even improve your cooking skills! You’ll be surprised at what tasty, nutritious meals you can put together on your own.