food

You are what you eat, experts say, and that includes foods that will help your body fight off infectious diseases this winter. (Think colds, flu and Covid-19.)

“What we eat is very important in terms of how our immune system responds to pathogens and how well it can defend itself against a pathogen,” said Dr. Simin Meydani, senior scientist and leader of the nutritional immunology team at Tufts University’s Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging.
Micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B complex, zinc and selenium help “pump up” two basic parts of the body’s defenses. The innate immune system springs into action as the first line of defense, followed by the adaptive immune system, which sends killer T cells, antibodies and other soldiers into combat.
Just how much you can jump-start immunity with nutrients depends on your age, overall health and stress levels, experts say.
But if you are overweight, smoke, drink, have a chronic disease, are overly stressed or sleeping poorly — and who isn’t these days? — focusing on the food you eat may pay immunity dividends this winter.
  • Tip: It’s also important to stay at a healthy weight, reduce your stress, get quality sleep and regular exercise to keep those natural defenses in fighting shape. Without that healthy baseline, your body will have to work harder to knock out invaders — and may even lose the match.

Immune-boosting diet

Is there an immune-boosting diet? The answer is yes — but there is no need to download or print a list of specific superfoods for your next shopping trip.
“You’re not going to see the benefit that you want to see by eating a large amount of one single nutrient or food component,” Meydani explained.
That’s because the body’s cellular immune response relies on harmonious interactions between different micronutrients found in a huge variety of whole foods.
Therefore, the best route to a healthy immune system is to eat a large variety of fresh and colorful red, yellow, orange, blue and green fruits and vegetables each day, along with some high-quality whole grains, a bit of lean protein and a splash of healthy oils.
Does that recommendation seem familiar? Yes, that’s the healthy eating plate you’ve seen so many times.

Fill your plate with a majority of fruits and vegetables -- the more the better, research says.

A wide variety of colorful foods is also the basis of the top-rated Mediterranean diet and DASH diet, which stands for “dietary approaches to stop hypertension,” or high blood pressure.
Both the Mediterranean and DASH diets avoid processed foods and focus on fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Numerous studies found the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk for high cholesterol, dementia, memory loss, depression and breast cancer. Meals from the sunny Mediterranean region have also been linked to stronger bones, a healthier heart and longer life. Oh, and weight loss, too.

Pump up the volume

If you want to maximize the impact of food on your immune system, you’ll need to dramatically increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat each day, Meydani says.
Her team investigated immune responses in animals fed two to three servings of fruits and veggies a day, and compared them to those who ate five to six servings a day or eight to nine servings a day.
“The eight to nine servings a day was where we were seeing the best effect,” Meydani said. “So it’s not just increasing the intake by a little bit, you’ve got to increase it substantially. People need to work at it in order to reach that level.”
Finding ways to insert fruits and veggies into every meal and snack during the day may do more than pump up your immunity. A 2017 study found a significant reduction in the risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and early death by eating 10 portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
Current dietary guidelines in the United States only recommend up to two cups of fruit and two to three servings of vegetables a day.
Yet nearly 90% of Americans eat fewer than three servings of vegetables, while more than 70% didn’t meet the daily recommendations for fruit consumption, according to government estimates of US eating patterns.

Anti-inflammatory foods

There’s another reason to pack your plate with a variety of fruits and veggies — the need to control your body’s inflammatory response to bacteria and viruses.
“A certain amount of inflammatory response is needed to get rid of the pathogens and to help the the body’s immune system perform its function,” Meydani said. “But if you produce too many inflammatory components, it can be damaging to surrounding tissues. It can cause autoimmune diseases. It can cause chronic diseases.”
Chronic inflammation has been linked in studies to cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, Alzheimer’s and many other diseases.
Unfortunately, today’s Western diet is full of overly processed, fat-laden foods, sugary drinks and red and processed meats that can cause persistently high levels inflammation in the body.
Eating a lot of unhealthy, “ultraprocessed” foods may shorten your life — just a 10% increase in such foods was significantly associated with a 14% higher risk of death from all causes, studies have shown.
Fight back by limiting inflammatory foods such as ice cream, cookies, pastries, cereal bars and cakes, premade pies, pasta and pizza dishes, poultry and fish nuggets and sticks, cocoa and fruit-flavored drinks, “health” and “slimming” products such as powdered or “fortified” meal and dish substitutes, powdered and packaged instant soups, noodles and desserts, sausages and hot dogs.
Instead, choose leafy greens, tomatoes, fruits, nuts, fatty fish and olive oil — foods that can support a healthy inflammatory response without sending it into overdrive.

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