Is it just me or do you sometimes get sick right before a big event like your Caribbean vacation?
Or find yourself doubled over from the stomach flu the day before an important presentation at work?
Even though we can’t control which viruses or bacteria latch onto our bodies, we can give our immune systems a better chance at preventing some illnesses before they strike.
I’m talking about eating a healthy balanced diet every day, not just when you feel you may be coming down with something.
If we eat nutritiously more often than not, when we’re stressed and overworking our bodies, our immune systems will have the right vitamins and nutrients to keep us healthy during skipped meals and crazy sleep schedules.
Eating well isn’t just about weight loss, it’s about making your body healthy. I completely believe that good nutrition and good health are intertwined.
Following a nutritiously balanced diet:
- Helps with weight management
- Strengthens endurance
- Increases energy levels
- Improves moods
- Boosts immune systems
- Delays the aging process
- Prevents serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and inflammation
A nutritiously sound diet basically does everything you’d ever want food to do for your body.
Make sure you get a:
- High amount of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and low fat dairy
- Medium amount of lean protein (meat, eggs, nuts)
- Small amount of fat, sodium, and sugar
But even if you’re getting the right amounts of healthy foods, you may still be missing out.
Pay Attention to Variety
You may think you’re switching up the foods you eat because you have a different flavor of overnight oats every day, or vary up your pasta sauces, but think again.
The truth is, we kind of get stuck in our ways when it comes to nutrition.
Even if you’re choosing whole wheat pasta and whole grain bread, you’re still only eating from one grain family: wheat.
When health experts say to eat a variety of foods, they mean make sure to incorporate different food families to diversify your nutrient intake.
“In the study, participants who consumed the widest range of foods were 21 percent less likely to develop metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, or increased body fat that ups your risk for heart disease and diabetes—compared to those who stuck to their standbys”.
The article noted that those consuming variation in their diets were also “less likely to have high blood pressure, and more likely to have a healthy waist circumference”.
That’s amazing news.
But I’ll admit I’m guilty of not following this advice; when I discover a healthy food combination, I like to stick with it.
Let’s take a quick dinner of mine as an example. A serving of kale is an amazing source of vitamin C (a whopping 134% per cup!), but it doesn’t have as much protein as say, a serving of salmon (39 g protein).
So I routinely combine these two foods to make sure I’m getting enough vitamin C and protein in my diet. But I do know I can’t get locked on good-for-you combinations like this.
Using our example, other strong vitamin C/protein combos include: roasted orange chicken, tempeh and grilled red peppers, or even Icelandic yogurt and kiwi (skin on!).
Just by swapping different versions of the same healthy benefits (vitamin C and protein), my diet now includes vitamins and nutrients from different fruits, veggies, and protein sources.
It’s easy when you think about it, but that’s the thing…you need to be conscious of it. This isn’t as easy as it sounds and sometimes means forgoing your easy standby recipes once in awhile to try something new.
But hey, eating different foods can be an exciting part of a boring work day. It’s also a great way to teach your kids about new foods they may want to eat more of.
“Nutrient-dense foods supply abundant vitamins and minerals, as well as phytochemicals, which are plant-based molecules found in many fruits and vegetables. These compounds help ward off health issues such as cancer and inflammatory disorders”.
A good way to incorporate variety is to eat by the color wheel; different colored fruits and veggies contain different types of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants.
Try to eat food from every color at least once a day, or once a meal if you’re trying to be a nutrition all star.
Complex Carbs to the Rescue
We talked about the difference between good complex carbs and bad simple carbs in this post.
To recap: processed white flour products such as white bread and pasta are typically bad simple carbs; unprocessed grains and veggies like wild rice, quinoa, and beans are complex carbs.
Simple carbs break down into glucose, or sugar, very quickly in the body.
This sudden rush of sugar in the blood causes the body to release inflammatory messengers, also known as cytokines. This leads to inflammatory health issues from diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, to asthma and cancer. Not to mention too many simple carbs leads to high blood glucose, insulin resistance, and many other things too.
So by replacing simple sugar-filled carbs with healthy complex carbs, you’ll be automatically doing your health a big favor.
Choose High Fiber Foods
You can think of dietary fiber as carbs your body can’t digest.
Fiber helps keep our digestion in peak condition by moving everything along nicely. See, when fiber swells up during digestion, it slows down the time it takes for our bodies to process nutrients on its way through.
It also lowers cholesterol, and since it makes us feel fuller longer it helps keep our weight in control.
Studies have shown that fiber may even prevent cancer and gallstones.
But besides all of these well-known benefits of fiber, recent research suggests that fiber may even be good for our immune systems.
Gregory Freund, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, said: “Soluble fiber changes the personality of immune cells — they go from being pro-inflammatory, angry cells, to anti-inflammatory, healing cells that help us recover faster from infection”.
So with that information in mind, have you been getting enough fiber?
Most people top out at 15 grams of fiber per day on average.
But guess what?
The daily fiber recommendation is 30 to 38 grams a day for men and 20-25 grams a day for women.
That’s a LOT more than what most people are consuming.
People who don’t get enough fiber become more prone to health issues like constipation, painful hemorrhoids, weight gain, high cholesterol, high blood sugar, lower immune system responses, and even cancer.
Here’s where to find lots of helpful fiber:
- Wholegrain bread
- Brown rice
- Fruits like apples, citrus, strawberries, and pears
- Dark green leafy veggies, carrots, peas, artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, berries, and avocado
Pump Up the Lean Protein
Vegans and meat-eaters can all agree that our bodies need protein to survive.
Whether you choose plant-based options or animal products, our bodies use that protein to:
- Repair tissues
- Build muscle
- Form blood cells
- Synthesize enzymes
- Create hormones
- Transport nutrients
- Keep us alert
Not getting enough protein keeps your body from being able to make the proteins it needs, compromises the immune system, and damages the liver.
You can get healthy protein from meats, poultry, fish, dairy, nuts, grains, and lentils.
Don’t forget about whey protein too!
According to one study, whey protein helps immune cells move around better and destroy harmful invaders. Researchers concluded that whey protein extract “has immunomodulatory properties and the potential to increase host defenses”.
Whey protein also helps fight congestion-causing neutrophils. It even helps the body get back to normal after the immune system goes on an attack.
Eat the Right Fats (They Exist)
Your balanced diet should include a small amount of healthy fats.
Diets that are high in bad fats seem to suppress our immune systems. And lackluster immune systems mean we’re constantly vulnerable to infections and sickness.
However, by swapping saturated fats for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, and focusing on getting enough omega-3 fatty acids, you’ll actually start strengthening immune cells.
Healthy unsaturated fats make sure your cell membranes are flexible and also regulate your cholesterol, both of which limit your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Lots of fried food, margarine, and unsavory oils are definitely out of the question.
Instead, search out monounsaturated fats that hang out in avocados, nuts, pumpkin seeds, oily fish, and in cooking oils like olive, peanut, and canola. Oils such as flaxseed, soybean, corn, and sunflower have polyunsaturated fats.
But eating too many polyunsaturated fats in the form of oils can lead to excess inflammation too. So omega-3s and monounsaturated fats are definitely your best choices.
Now, I’m sure you’ve been told to load up on vitamin C during cold and flu season, and eat yogurt everyday for good digestive health. But there are a lot of other foods out there that will also work their magic to keep you in tip-top shape.
By incorporating some of these foods, you’ll see just how quickly good nutrition stops you from getting sick.
Like I said, we all know that the vitamin C found in citrus fruits and juices is a master at immune system enhancing. But are you getting enough?
“Because your body doesn’t produce or store it, daily intake of vitamin C is essential for continued health”.
Fitness Magazine suggests eating two clementines to get 100% of your RDA of vitamin C the simple way since they’re “easy to pack and eat (no sticky fingers, since their skins peel off effortlessly)”.
I always prefer adding garlic to my dishes instead of salt; I feel like it provides just enough flavor to keep me from having to reach for the salt shaker and raise my sodium levels.
But I recently learned that garlic may also boost our immune systems and make us more resilient to infections and stress too. You see, garlic is full of selenium, which is an antioxidant that loves to fight free radicals.
In one study at the University of Maryland Medical Center, participants who took garlic supplements for 12 weeks during cold season had fewer colds than those who took a placebo during the same time.
And when the garlic participants did get a cold, they “saw their symptoms go away faster than those who took placebo”.
Maybe that’s why the Mediterranean Diet uses so much of it…
Remember when we discussed how to fight off candida infections with probiotics?
Well, by eating live active cultures such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bifidus, and Saccharomyces boulardii, you’ll build up a higher resistance to bacteria that causes food poisoning.
Research suggests that probiotics may prevent or slow the rate of infection completely.
Probiotics help good bacteria in our bodies multiply, and those swarms of good guys crush all the bad bacteria.
By regularly consuming plain yogurt and kefir (make sure there’s not a ton of sugar!), you’ll be on your way towards fewer yeast infections, UTIs, diarrhea, and really bad colds or flus.
The old standby for all icky related illnesses, chicken soup seems like the wonder-cure of them all when you’re feeling like you may get sick (or already are).
Warm and comforting like the coziest blanket, researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center tested a traditional chicken soup for it’s ability to reduce inflammation of the respiratory tract and halt the spread of congestion-causing white blood cells called neutrophils.
They discovered that “all of the vegetables present in the soup and the chicken individually had inhibitory activity”. This means that one cup a day worked to produce a “mild anti-inflammatory effect”, which could “result in the mitigation of symptomatic upper respiratory tract infections”.
Sounds like inflammation and congestion won’t want to be stuck in a dark alley with chicken soup.
Be careful though, researchers found that commercial soups varied significantly in their inhibitory activity. But fear not! Here’s the official Grandma’s Chicken Soup recipe they used.
Sources of Zinc
You can find this awesome antioxidant in lots of food sources; meat, poultry, spinach, oysters, pumpkin seeds, beans, and nuts all contain zinc.
Zinc has been shown to stop the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and viruses in our bodies. And a reduction in growth means a decrease in infections.
But if you do happen to get a cold or infection, studies show that zinc’s powerful immunity boosting effects may help shorten the duration of a cold, and may actually stop the cold cells from multiplying.
You’ll find this natural antioxidant in red apples, citrus fruit, green tea, dark berries, and broccoli – some of the healthiest foods on the planet.
You know why apples keep the doctor away?
Because they’re packed with quercetin, which helps your immune system stay strong during times of stress.
- Stops histamines to prevent allergies
- Is an anti-inflammatory to reduce arthritis
- Protects from heart disease
- Has anti-cancer properties
Drinking green tea and snacking on red apples seems so worth it for all of those benefits.
Get Your Vitamin D
I’m not surprised that we usually get colds and flus in the months we spend the most time indoors, far away from where vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin thrives.
One study determined that having low levels of vitamin D increases your risks for developing colds, flus, and respiratory infections.
So if you don’t spend a lot of time outdoors or eat lots of vitamin D rich foods, you could have a truly miserable cold and flu season on your hands.
The Importance of Glutathione
I like the way Dr. Hyman explains glutathione’s critical role as the “mother of all antioxidants” in our bodies:
“Dealing with free radicals is like handing off a hot potato. They get passed around from vitamin C to vitamin E to lipoic acid and then finally to glutathione which cools off the free radicals and recycles other antioxidants”.
Glutathione attracts all the toxins in our body like sticky fly tape. Once all the toxins are stuck to it, they’re carried out of our bodies.
When our bodies lack glutathione, or have an excess of toxins, we don’t have the ability to get rid of free radicals and other toxins that cause infections. If this continues we lead ourselves down the dark path towards chronic illness.
And guess what?
Exercise increases glutathione levels too.
Just 30 minutes a day of cardio or 20 minutes a day of strength training will really help boost your glutathione levels.
I like how the same people who take the time to obsessively sanitize their hands also mindlessly eat fast food, skip meals, and avoid exercising.
It’s as if they don’t know that eating a balanced and nutritious diet will be more beneficial for their immune systems and help their bodies fight off infection better than a little alcohol.
By making sure to incorporate a variety of vitamins and nutrients with healthy amounts of complex carbs, proteins, and good-for-you fats, you’ll be giving your body premium food fuel. And it will certainly start running better because of your choices.
How do you like to stay healthy? I’d love to hear some of your tips and tricks in the comments!