I don’t know about where you live, but there are lots of nasty illnesses going around - from the flu to strep to this weird stomach ache that is nicely paired with a low grade headache and an all-over achy body. Our family was lucky to have the stomach cluster issue all last week, but have (so far) warded off the other stuff. Don’t be surprised when I tell you that our eating patterns can help protect or put us at risk for all the nastiness out there. Good nutrition is essential to keeping your immune system strong.
March happens to be National Nutrition Month
, and every March we encourage everyone to get back to the basics of healthy eating. This year’s theme, “Get Your Plate in Shape,” is a perfect reminder in using food as a weapon against a variety of illnesses from the minor to the major. So many people turn to popping supplements that they forget the power that food has in doing the trick better! The USDA’s MyPlate is a great visual of how we should build our plates.
Here are some ways to “Get Your Plate in Shape” and also boost that immune system:
· Make half of your plate fruits and vegetables : Eat a variety of vegetables, especially dark-green, red and orange varieties. Add fresh, dried, frozen or canned fruits to meals and snacks. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with immunity-boosting capabilities including key nutrients such as vitamins A and C (especially orange and yellow varieties).
· Make at least half your grains whole : Choose 100 percent whole-grain breads, cereals, crackers, pasta and brown rice. Check the ingredients list on food packages to find whole-grain foods. W hole grains including fortified cereals and breads contain zinc has been a key player in maximizing immunity.
· Switch to fat-free or low-fat milk : Fat-free and low-fat milk have the same amount of calcium and other essential nutrients as whole milk, but less fat and calories. For those who are lactose intolerant, try lactose-free milk or a calcium-fortified soy beverage. H igh in protein and vitamin D, these are also two things that help ward off illness. Some research suggests that vitamin D may help reduce the incidence of the flu. And if they happen to get the flu, it is important to have adequate levels to fight off the illness.
· Vary your protein choices : Eat a variety of foods from the protein food group each week, such as seafood, nuts and beans, as well as lean meat, poultry and eggs. Keep meat and poultry portions small and lean. And be sure to choose seafood as the protein at least twice a week. L ean meat, poultry, beans and nuts are all good sources of zinc. Non-meat sources of protein include beans, nuts and tofu. Protein is the basic building block of immune cells, so it is vital for both the prevention and treatment of illness.
· Cut back on sodium and empty calories from solid fats and added sugars : Compare sodium in foods and choose those with lower numbers, and season your foods with herbs and spices instead of salt. Switch from solid fats to healthy oils like olive and canola oil. Replace sugary drinks with water and choose fruit for dessert. High sugar foods have a tendency to have less nutrients to fuel that immune system.
· Enjoy your foods but eat less : Avoid oversized portions. Use a smaller plate, bowl and glass. Cook more often at home where you are in control of what’s in your food. When eating out, choose lower calorie menu options. Overeating and being overweight can stress your body out, which can lead to a variety of illnesses including cancer.
· Be physically active your way : Adults need at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity every week. Choose activities that you enjoy, and start by doing as much as you can. Exercise has been shown to fight off infections, although they aren’t fully sure how. Some theories include flushing bacteria through the lungs, temporarily increasing body temperature to kill bacteria and decreasing stress hormones.
Other ways to keep immunity boosted nicely is to get plenty of sleep and keep stress levels to a minimum. I know this is easier said than done sometimes, so make sure you have people around you to encourage and support you in this thing we call “life.”
Throughout the month of March, I will discuss other practical ways to "Get Your Plate in Shape." What are your barriers to eating healthy? I would love to hear from you! We can address them together.
For more information on National Nutrition Month, head over to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics webpage to check out some fun nutrition games and practical food suggestions by topic.