In a time when supporting your immune system is important — as it always is during common periods of illness, like our typical flu and cold season — it’s nice to be reminded of the most effective ways of doing so. 425 spoke with Christy Goff, a dietitian at Pacific Medical Centers who has been practicing for six years, to get the latest on ways to keep your immune system healthy, what kind of canned goods you should reach for, and more.
What should we be eating to support our immune systems?
The relationship between our immune system and nutrition is still largely unknown; however, what we do know is that an overall healthy diet can help support the immune system. An easy way to get more immune-supporting nutrients is to simply add more fruits and vegetables into each meal and snack.
Fruits and vegetables provide the body with many vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin C, which are both utilized in the immune system. Go for citrus fruits and their zest, red bell peppers, sweet potatoes, and dark leafy greens. Aim for a wide variety of colors in your meals which is a good indicator that you are getting a variety of nutrients.
What about supplements?
Supplements are tricky for the immune system because they are not always regulated and research can show varying results — so be wary of their marketing claims. That being said, vitamin D supplementation seems to help those that are deficient to reduce their risk of respiratory diseases.
Another supplement that is commonly used is vitamin C. Vitamin C can both help preserve external barriers as well as supports our immune warrior inside the body. However, research observes that regular small doses of vitamin C, ideally ingested from food, is better absorbed by the body than large doses from supplements for prevention. You should aim for 500mg or less per supplement, or eat a fruit or veggie with meals, to get a regular dose of vitamin C. For example, a red bell pepper has about 250mg of vitamin C.
Do frozen and canned foods have fewer vitamins than fresh foods?
Most frozen and canned foods still have good nutrients in them because they are often picked and processed at peak freshness. Frozen foods are typically a better choice because most have little additives, unlike canned which are often processed with added sugar or salt. Additionally, the canning process is done at a high temperature, which can leach out some of those water-soluble vitamins like vitamins B and C.
Do you have any tips on ways that people can limit their intake of alcohol, sugar, and other highly processed foods that might weaken their immune system?
During stressful times, it’s important to focus on mindful eating, including being aware of when we are gravitating toward alcohol, sugar, or other highly processed foods. With many of us working from home, these items are more accessible throughout the day.
I recommend keeping healthier items in the house to avoid the temptation of these highly processed foods and/or sweets. If you want those items, I encourage people to enjoy them — as a celebration. These items should not be demonized or seen as forbidden foods, but the extra effort needed to venture to the store can separate your craving from a true want.
For sugar cravings, try munching on sweet natural foods, like raw or dried fruit, as they can provide a nice alternative for a craving.
For alcohol, try alternating alcoholic beverages with water or seltzer water to stay hydrated. Avoid day drinking, if possible, as people usually tend to drink more at this time. You could even try making mocktails like Bloody Marys, or even a ginger kombucha and lime seltzer instead of a Moscow mule. Lastly, I recommend taking a walk with a friend (six feet apart or over the phone right now!) to catch up rather than the normal happy hours. It’s important to get support from a professional if you feel a loss of control or addiction to alcohol.
To what degree do stress, sleep, and exercise affect our immune health?
We know sleep and exercise affect our health, but it’s a little less clear as to how they work with our immune system.
Stress affects our ability to maintain healthy habits like regular exercise, eating healthy, and sleeping — all of which weaken the immune system. Stress also increases the body’s general inflammation over time. Sleep is the time for the body to repair itself and less sleep is correlated to an increase in sickness.
However, exercise seems to strengthen our immune system and it is a great way to maintain physical health. Physically healthier people have more resistance to illnesses. The CDC recommends everyone get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. This doesn’t have to be all at once so space exercises out in 10-or-more-minute increments at a time.
Are there any canned foods or dried goods that are especially good for us that we should try to have on hand?
Try to buy a mixture of canned vegetables and proteins (like beans or salmon) to have in your cabinet, as this can be great as backup meals when you run out of fresh or frozen food. You should avoid canned foods that add a lot of additional ingredients, like sugar or salt, by comparing labels and brands.
For dried goods, I enjoy having a variety of grains like faro or rice to add into grain bowls or packed lunches, as well as an array of nuts, dried fruits, and seeds.
Are there any specific canned foods that are known for having unhealthy additives that we should try to avoid?
Luckily, canned foods are safe and regulated by the FDA for the additives put into them. However, many canned foods contain excess salt or sugar, so it is important to be a good label reader to determine what you will buy. A quick rule of thumb is to look for brands that contain less than 5 grams of sugar per serving and less than 200mg of sodium per serving.
What are your ideas for healthy easy recipes that can be prepared from frozen or shelf-stable food items that people are probably stocking up on right now?
Right now, my favorite recipes are different grain bowl ideas — essentially having your MyPlate diagram in a bowl. That’s a quarter of your plate as some type of carbohydrate, a quarter containing protein, mixing in vegetables, and then adding additional flavor, spice, or sauce.
You can use previously frozen, or whole grains from your cupboard — which has a long shelf-life, like quinoa — as a base. For the protein, you can add your favorite like canned tuna, salmon, chicken, etc. To finish, top with fresh or frozen vegetables, then add your go-to dressing or sauce and enjoy!
Another idea is breakfast for dinner — using eggs as your base. Eggs are a great staple and are quick and easy! You can make this fancier by creating an omelet or frittata. Low-energy, minimal clean-up, and it’s delicious.
One of my favorite shelf-stable pantry dinners is mixing one can of canned tomatoes, unsalted peanut butter, garlic (fresh or powdered), and ginger. This can create a stew or a sauce for rice, or other whole grain. It’s tasty and is my take on an African peanut soup, which I highly recommend. It’s simple, and likely already in your pantry or fridge!