We’ve seen an outpouring of support for essential workers, healthcare personnel, and the country at large over the past weeks and months—often with an intensity we haven’t encountered since the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. But while the support for others is touching, I can’t help but think that too few of us are taking our health and importance into consideration.
What we eat directly affects our ability to fight off illness. And during a global pandemic, immune response is just as important to personal health and flattening the curve as social distancing. Here’s why and how, a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help rev up your immune response:
Most illnesses are caused by an immune response to inflammation. Eating a healthy, whole-food diet with a focus on fresh produce is an effective preventative measure against many long-term illnesses—think diabetes and heart disease—as well as short-term, acute illnesses like COVID-19. Diets rich in red meat, processed foods, and added sugars have been linked to an increase in inflammation and a weakened immune response.
Sugar, specifically, weakens the immune system by starving the gut of beneficial bacteria. And although you may not think of your stomach as an important player in the fight against viruses, an increasing body of research shows that the microbiome—the delicate ecosystem of bacteria in our bodies—is linked to immune system function. In other words, a lack of balance between “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria is a recipe for sickness.
Microbiome imbalance can also be attributed to a diet low in fiber, which most produce, whole grains, beans, and legumes provide plenty of. Lastly, be sure to add plenty of spices: Garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, clove, and oregano have all been shown to have antimicrobial properties, which can help kill and slow the spread of microorganisms like viruses.
Ideal immune system function relies heavily on vitamins and minerals such as A, C, D, E and Zinc. Here are some of the highest sources of each:
Dark leafy greens
Orange sweet potatoes
Squash and pumpkin
Red bell peppers
Nuts and seeds
Beans and legumes
Last but not least, vitamin D is an outlier—it’s mostly created in the body when we are exposed to sunlight. As a result, can be a tough vitamin to get, even under normal circumstances. Throw in a pandemic that has kept us cooped up indoors for weeks and months, and we’re all likely to be a bit deficient.
This is part of a series by Northwell Health Registered Dietitian Julie Kramer on the importance of making nutrition a priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. For more health and wellness tips, visit thewell.northwell.edu.