While the holidays might be a time when we feel our eating habits slide, you can still be healthy and not have to eat perfectly!
As seen in Metro Style, November 25, 2022
The busy holiday time can be both the best and busiest time of year. Whether it’s stressful and sleep-depriving, restful and restorative, or a mix of both, you probably don’t want to spend it sick and in bed! When your to-do list gets a little busier and social events pile up, your body might be exposed to more stressors which can weaken the immune system. Alcohol, smoking, mental stress, and a lack of sleep and exercise are big ones that can increase cortisol, which can prevent your body from producing white blood cells needed to fight infections. Long term exposure to chronic stressors can also lead to inflammation, which means your immune system is always activated and can get overworked. But do you know that 70 to 80 percent of your immune cells are actually in your gut? We are learning that the bacteria in your gut play a crucial role in immunity, and that you can actually eat your way to better protection from infections. I see food as a powerful tool to hack your body and help you do everything you want to do.
And while the holidays might be a time when we feel our eating habits slide, you can still be healthy and not have to eat perfectly. Try adding in these foods where you can, and focus on the meals you can control. Nutrition is not all-or-nothing, and the veggies you ate for dinner aren't canceled out if you had cake for dessert. And most of all, don’t stress about eating “unhealthy” foods, and do allow yourself to enjoy your favorites, because that’s part of health too!
Nutrients and foods to include Vitamin C - This is probably the first vitamin you think of for cold prevention. But it turns out there’s no solid research showing high dose supplements can actually prevent you from getting sick, although they might help you recover faster. Vitamin C does support our white blood cells which fight off illnesses, but it seems like food sources are more effective, likely thanks to other plant chemicals. So instead of relying on a pill, include more citrus fruits, fresh or frozen berries, and tropical fruits like papaya, mango, pineapple, and kiwi in desserts, or as a part of a nourishing breakfast or snack. Zinc - This mineral has gotten increasingly popular over the last two years for its role in immune health. Studies show zinc can also help to shorten the duration of respiratory infections, reduce oxidative stress which can lead to inflammation, and even reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression for some people. The best sources of zinc are protein sources like beef, pork, chicken, crab, and plant proteins like tofu, chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, so add these to your plate throughout the day. Oysters are also very high in zinc, but choose a reputable source.
Selenium - Selenium is a lesser known mineral with an important role in the immune response. Seafood and fish are the best sources, as are other protein foods like meat, poultry and eggs, so eat a variety. Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread and good sources too, so eat your carbs! Protein - Speaking of protein, many components of our immune system are made of proteins, so eating enough keeps everything functioning optimally. Eating protein throughout the day helps you meet your needs, but watch out for extreme diets and chronic undereating which often lead to nutrient deficiencies and less protection against viruses and bacteria among other negative effects. Vitamin D - This is another trending vitamin that has been increasingly researched in the last 2 years for its role in immune health. While research is still inconclusive about preventing or reducing the severity of COVID-19 with normal vitamin D levels, it probably still is a good idea to get enough, as we are just finding out its many other functions. The sun is the main source and there are few good food sources so deficiency is common, especially if we spend most of our time indoors. And even with sun exposure, people can still be deficient so it may be worth discussing supplementation with a healthcare provider.
Iron - We usually think of iron’s role in preventing anemia, and it is true that people with anemia are more prone to infections. Some studies even show that iron status impacts the efficacy of vaccines. This is because iron plays a role in the creation of white blood cells, our main immune cells. Even though it’s always warm, the shorter days make a cozy time of year, so add white beans, chickpeas, and lentils into stews and soups, and throw in some spinach, tofu, beef and potatoes. Cacao and chocolate can be good sources too, so yes, including dark chocolate high in cacao can satisfy a craving and keep you feeling well too. Flavonoids - A second reason to eat chocolate is that cacao contains a plant chemical called flavonoids, which are anti-inflammatory, have antioxidant properties and other health benefits. Flavonoids are also found in berries, red grapes, which can go great in a dessert or even in a salad you could take to your next potluck. A cup of tea is also a good source, and can help you remember to stay hydrated.
Probiotic foods - Gut health is another recent buzzy term, and we do know that eating foods with beneficial bacteria helps our body fight infection. Common probiotic foods are fermented foods like kimchi and miso, especially if you love Japanese or Korean food. If you are trying to reduce your sugary beverage or alcohol consumption, kombucha is a fermented tea that can be a good replacement as well. Ginger, garlic, and onion - These classic herbs and spices do actually have immune boosting properties, and also make many Filipino dishes delicious. If ginger shots don’t sound appealing, wind down with a cup of ginger tea to reduce stress, and add turmeric for an anti-inflammatory boost. Garlic has antibacterial properties, and onion contains anti-inflammatory compounds. Simply seasoning your food with these aromatics can give you a little boost too.
There are a number of important vitamins and minerals to remember for good immune health, but the main way to get enough of these is to include more freshly cooked, unprocessed foods every day. As a bonus, these foods often help to reduce inflammation too, and have many other nutrients that keep us feeling good. Build a nutritious eating pattern over time, and you might even find you crave these foods during holidays as well! Even if you might not be able to cut down your holiday commitments, you can eat to power yourself through the last of 2022.