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Eating with a purpose, the importance of feeding your immune system

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

May 26, 2020

Our immune system is pretty amazing. Just think of all the germs we come in contact with every day, and our immune system is constantly “updating” to fight off new invaders. The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to defend the body against bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Common lifestyle choices can weaken the immune system such as obesity, smoking, alcohol, poor nutrition, sleep deprivation, acute or chronic stress, among others.

Eating too much sugar (sweets, drinks, or refined carbohydrates and fructose) can reduce your body’s ability to ward off disease, viruses, and bacteria by reducing the reactivity of white blood cells for 4-5 hours.  Sugar and refined carbohydrates feed the wrong gut bacteria and yeast, causing inflammation and impairing the immune system’s activity. This can lower our ability to fight off bugs like the cold and flu the way we should.

Thankfully, the damage is not permanent. After eating sugar, you temporarily reduce your immune system’s ability to respond to challenges for several hours.  However, if you eat sweets several times a day, your immune system may be perpetually operating with a disadvantage.

According to researchers from the University of Southampton UK in partnership with Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, some nutrients can improve the body’s immune response to viruses:

  • Regulators of molecular and cellular responses of the immune system: Vitamin A and Zinc.
  • Specific anti-infection role: Zinc.
  • Protection of the host: Vitamin E, C, Zinc and Selenium.
  • Immune response modulation: Lactobacillus & Bifidobacterium
  • Prevention of respiratory infections: Vitamin D.

Below are some food sources for these nutrients:

  • Vitamin A: beef, liver, eggs, shrimp, fish, fortified milk, sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkins, spinach, mangoes
  • Vitamin D: fortified milk and cereals, fatty fish
  • Vitamin E: vegetable oils, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, nuts
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruit, potatoes, broccoli, bell peppers, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts
  • Selenium: organ meat, seafood, nuts such as brazil nuts and sunflower seeds
  • Zinc: meat, shellfish, legumes, whole grains
  • Probiotics (lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium): Some cheeses, kefir, kimchi (a Korean fermented cabbage dish), kombucha (a fermented tea), sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), miso (a fermented soybean-based paste), and pickles

Now that we have a good list of several immune-boosting foods, how do we put it all together and build a healthy diet to feed your immune system?
Step 1: Check your pantry, fridge and freezer.
Step 2: Plan meals using the foods you already have following the recommended proportions (half plate with non-root vegetables, one quarter with whole grains and, one quarter with lean proteins).
Step 3: Choose fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Try to keep them as plain as possible in order to limit your sodium intake, sugar, and preservatives.
Step 5: Get unseasoned meats, poultry or fish. You can freeze them for months and use them as needed.
Step 6: Don’t forget to include beans and nuts (choose unsalted versions, e.g. organic canned beans which usually have less sodium).
Step 7: Include whole grains (such as oatmeal or whole wheat cold cereals).
Step 8: Reduce your intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates. Choose your treats wisely, for example, fresh, frozen or dry fruits, whole grains, yogurt, kefir, nuts or dark chocolate.

The recipe of the week comes via The Clean Eating Couple
Greek Chicken Cauliflower Rice Bowls

2 lbs chicken breasts pounded thin
1 cup kalamata olives sliced in half
1 cup artichoke hearts in water
1 cup cherry tomatoes halved
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary chopped (divided)
1 teaspoon dried oregano (divided)
2 teaspoons fresh thyme (divided)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 lb cauliflower rice

Heat olive oil in a large pan on the stove. Season chicken with 1 tsp of fresh thyme, 1 tsp fresh rosemary, 1/2 tsp oregano, 1/2 tsp pepper, and 1/2 tsp salt
Once the oil is hot, place chicken in the pan. Sear chicken in olive oil for 6-7 minutes on each side until golden brown.
Once chicken is cooked, remove from pan + set aside. Keep oil in the pan. Add in cherry tomatoes to the hot oil.
Sauté the tomatoes for 5-6 minutes until soft.
Add in 3 cups cauliflower rice, artichoke hearts, olives, and remaining spices. Stir to combine. Sauté for 3-4 minutes on low heat until cauliflower rice begins to soften.
Remove cauliflower rice from pan, and add to bowls. Slice chicken and add to the top.

Notes from author:

  • Substitutions for Greek chicken cauliflower rice bowls:
    • You can sub cauliflower rice with regular rice.
    • You can sub fresh herbs for dried. Use the same amount.
    • You can omit olive or artichoke hearts if you prefer the meal without them, simply bulk up on tomatoes or add in more of one or the other.
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