Ask A Dietitian - Easy Nutritious Ways to Support Your Immune System This Winter
The days are getting shorter, the weather is getting colder and winter is just around the corner. While no one wants to get sidelined by COVID-19, the flu or another seasonal virus, runners and walkers may be especially determined to keep their bodies as healthy as possible so they can maintain their fitness routines and continue training through the chilly months ahead.
Along with ample sleep, staying hydrated and proper hygiene such as handwashing, nutrition plays a big role in supporting the immune system and preventing illness. Read on to learn which nutrients have the biggest impact on immunity and which foods to include in your diet this winter for optimal health. Then check out our bonus seasonal recipe, which covers a lot of bases.
Nutrition and Immunity: The Basics
The immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues and molecules that collectively work to defend the body against pathogens and fight infection. Many different factors affect immune health, and no single food or nutrient can prevent or cure the flu, COVID-19 or any seasonal virus. Therefore, it's wise to beware of "superfoods" or supplements marketed to "boost" the immune system. That said, certain nutrients can support a healthy immune system when consumed as part of a balanced diet. When it comes to nutrition and immunity, foods rich in antioxidants and foods that promote a healthy gut microbiome have the most impact.
Antioxidants are plant-based compounds that protect our bodies from oxidative damage that would otherwise lead to disease, and they are an essential part of the immune response that helps fight illness. While our bodies can and do make antioxidants, it's also important to consume them through our diet to make sure we're getting ample amounts.
Before you start thinking about popping a supplement or seeking out the latest "superfood," consider making small but impactful changes to your daily eating pattern to relatively effortlessly increase your intake of antioxidants.
Four of the key antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E and zinc) are actually found in a variety of nutrient-rich foods that can easily be incorporated into a balanced diet. When you get antioxidants from foods rather than supplements, not only is it safer and less expensive but you also reduce the risk of overdosing and reap additional nutrition benefits.
Foods Rich in Vitamin C:
• Citrus fruits and juice such as oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, bell peppers, strawberries, tomatoes, broccoli, cantaloupe, cauliflower, kale, kiwi and papaya
Easy Ways to Get More Vitamin C
• Add strawberries to your cereal or yogurt
• Enjoy an orange with breakfast or as a refreshing pre-run pick-me-up
• Munch on sliced bell peppers dipped in hummus for a satisfying snack
• Add tomato slices to your sandwich or wrap
Foods Rich in Vitamin A:
• Sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach, broccoli, apricots, eggs and fortified dairy milk
Easy Ways to Get More Vitamin A
• Throw some baby spinach in your omelet or smoothie at breakfast
• Use pureed pumpkin to make muffins or quick breads
• Bake sweet potatoes, along with your favorite protein and green vegetable, for a balanced dinner
• Instead of a protein shake or bar, nosh on a few hard-boiled eggs for a high-protein snack
Foods Rich In Vitamin E:
• Almonds and other nuts, sunflower and other seeds, peanut butter and other nut butters, vegetable oils, fortified nut milks, avocado
Easy Ways to Get More Vitamin E
• Enjoy a handful of almonds, peanuts or your favorite nuts for a mid-afternoon snack
• Top oatmeal, yogurt, or a green salad with pumpkin or sunflower seeds
• Use olive oil to sauté vegetables or make your own salad dressing
• Spread avocado on toast for breakfast
Foods Rich In Zinc:
• Beef, fish, seafood, dark meat poultry, pork chop, whole grains, fortified cereal, beans, chickpeas, pumpkin and other seeds, almonds and other nuts, and tofu
Easy Ways to Get More Zinc
• Add turkey meatballs or ground turkey to your favorite pasta dish
• Use brown rice instead of white in a stir fry
• Bake chicken thighs or salmon fillets as the protein in a "one sheet pan" meal
• Use black beans to make a Mexican-inspired salad or burrito bowl
THE GUT MICROBIOME
The term gut microbiome refers to the bacteria and other organisms that naturally live in our digestive tract. Increasingly, research is uncovering just how much the quality and quantity of bacteria in our gut impacts different aspects of our health, including immunity. Basically, a healthy gastrointestinal system supports a healthy immune system. You can optimize gut health, and thus immune health, by eating more foods rich in probiotics (aka: good bacteria) and prebiotics - dietary fibers that serve as fuel for the good bacteria, allowing them to grow.
Foods High In Probiotics:
• Greek yogurt and kefir
• Aged cheeses, such as cheddar, gruyere, manchego, gouda and parmesan
• Fermented foods, such as tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha
Easy Ways to Get More Probiotics
• Start your day with a Greek yogurt parfait topped with berries and granola
• Make tempeh the star of a meatless meal
• Add aged cheese to a salad or sandwich for a pop of flavor
• Sip on kombucha instead of a soft drink or sweet tea
Foods High In Prebiotics:
• Most vegetables, especially artichokes and asparagus
• Many fruits, including apples and bananas
• Onions, garlic and leeks
• Flax and other seeds
• Oats and other whole grains
Easy Ways to Get More Prebiotics
• Munch on an apple with peanut butter for a satisfying snack
• Sauté onions and garlic along with vegetables in a stir fry for extra flavor
• Enjoy oatmeal as part of a hearty pre- or post-run breakfast
• Add ground flax to your oatmeal, pancakes or baked-good recipes
Immune Supporting Seasonal Salad
This colorful, vibrant salad is full of key nutrients that support immune health. Plus, it's the perfect crowd-pleasing recipe to share at your upcoming holiday parties and potlucks.
Makes 4 servings. Multiply as needed.
• 4 cups arugula or your favorite green (vitamin A)
• ½ cup pomegranate arils or dried cranberries (vitamin C)
• 1 cup apples, chopped (prebiotics)
• ½ cup aged cheddar or parmesan cheese, shredded (probiotics)
• ½ cup pepitas, chopped pecans, your favorite nuts/seeds (vitamin E and zinc)
• Combine ingredients in a large serving bowl, or divide evenly among individual plates
• Top salad with your favorite dressing or make your own using olive oil, apple cider vinegar and a dash of mustard
Nutrition is one of the tools runners and walkers can use to optimize immune health during the winter months and beyond. Foods rich in antioxidants and pre/probiotics most directly support a healthy immune system and can easily and deliciously be incorporated into your diet by making a few tweaks to the meals and snacks you're already eating.
Alissa is an Atlanta-based registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer dedicated to helping people optimize their health and athletic performance by harnessing the power of nutrition. Alissa currently offers virtual and in-person nutrition consultations, meal planning services and metabolic testing. Learn more at https://alissapalladinonutrition.squarespace.com/ or contact her at email@example.com