Food for Thought: Nourishing the Immune System
As football coaches and nutritionists know, the best offense is a good defense. In the ongoing fight to stay healthy amidst COVID-19, the promise of boosting the immune system with specific ‘superfoods’ is an enticing one. However, registered dietitian Linda Gigliotti, who is a fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and has been in practice for more than three decades, cautions that the concept is somewhat misleading. Here is what you should consider regarding superfoods and your immune system.
Balance Leads to Immune System Harmony
She explains, “We may wish there were specific foods that could make us less susceptible to illness by building up our immune system, but it doesn’t work that way. The immune system is not a single entity and requires harmony and balance between its different components to function well.”
According to experts, although the body continually generates immune cells, with extra ones dying off in a process called apoptosis, scientists don’t yet know how many cells are needed for optimal functioning of the immune system or what the best mix of cells may be. A better approach, according to Gigliotti, is using a mix of foods that are the building blocks of a nutritionally balanced diet (e.g., a high nutrient, minimally processed plant based diet) to support or protect the immune system, not boost it.
Foods to Help Support & Protect the Immune System
“There’s no one ‘superfood’ or category that should be singled out to the exclusion of others,” says Gigliotti. “The typical American diet can certainly benefit from more of an emphasis on fruits and vegetables but eat the whole rainbow of colors – red peppers, yellow corn, orange carrots, green broccoli, brown mushrooms. Chickpeas, often touted as a superfood, are excellent, but so are other legumes, such as kidney and pinto beans. Be sure to include a variety of probiotic-rich and fiber-packed foods to promote healthy gut bacteria, which also enhances your ability to maintain health and resist disease.”
Immune System of Older Adults
For older adults the picture may be a little hazier, due to “micronutrient malnutrition,” a deficiency in essential vitamins and trace minerals obtained from the diet, which is frequently seen in seniors even in affluent countries. According to Harvard Health, some lab studies have linked deficiencies in zinc; selenium; iron; folic acid; and vitamins A, B, C and D to an altered immune response in animals.
Can Vitamin Megadoses boost your Immune System?
It’s important to know that megadoses of vitamins and minerals are not recommended as a preventive measure for anyone. For example, studies over the years show that vitamin C supplements do not appear to lessen the possibility of getting a cold, although they may help recover from one faster and lessen the symptoms. Taking extra-large doses is not advised, because vitamin C is water soluble and excess amounts aren’t stored in the body, but excreted. The optimal way to naturally absorb vitamin C and other vitamins is by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. If you are concerned that you may not be getting sufficient micronutrients in your diet, you may want to consider a multi-vitamin.
Flu Season and your Immune System
How can you best support your immune system as the new flu season waits in the wings? Most importantly, get a flu shot. Continue to focus on healthy lifestyle habits, including a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, high-protein foods and whole grains; adequate sleep; regular exercise; no smoking or vaping; and managing anxiety. And yes, keep washing your hands!