Are You Eating To Optimise Your Immune System This Winter?
The cooler winds are alerting us to the presence of winter, a time many fear due to the associated winter health worries. However our immunity is something dependant on the fuel we provide our bodies, and so 99FM’s MYD Heart spoke to Samantha du Toit, a Namibian Nutrition and Dietetic Consultant and founder of Eat Clean Namibia, to find out how the right food can boost our immunity. Samantha prepared this guide for us.
Eating To Optimise Your Immune System This Winter by Samantha du Toit
Every winter people are frantically trying to boost their immune system with all kinds of supplements in order to prevent getting ill. The most famous one is vitamin C and some people take mega doses of it in desperation, believing that it will protect them from the dreaded common cold. However, for optimal immunity, science tells us that we need to take care of our overall health, lifestyle and diet, instead of just focusing on one or two nutrients. If you only rely on taking extra vitamin C in the winter, it’s almost like patching up only one of many holes in your roof before the rainy season.
“However, for optimal immunity, science tells us that we need to take care of our overall health, lifestyle and diet, instead of just focusing on one or two nutrients. If you only rely on taking extra vitamin C in the winter, it’s almost like patching up only one of many holes in your roof before the rainy season.”
Our immune system consists of a number of different organs and cells located all over the body in a network that functions to protect the body against disease in a number of different ways. Immune system cells are constantly seeking and destroying foreign bodies that manage to enter the body and while our immune system is incredibly effective, it does sometimes fail us. The reason for this is because it relies on a holistic balance of a healthy lifestyle such as stress management, good quality sleep, positive thoughts, doing things we enjoy, loving relationships, laughter and of course, a healthy, balanced diet.
“Eating a wide variety of foods in our diet is important in order to obtain a good variety of different micronutrients we need on a daily basis. No single food contains everything the body needs.”
So what is important about our diet to optimise our immune system? Firstly we need to make sure we eat just enough food for our body, not too little and not too much. Eating just enough will ensure that the right amount of nutrients are obtained to keep the immune system healthy. Eating too much does not always refer to the volume of food, but also to the energy density of food. All processed foods high in sugar and/or fat are generally excessively high in energy but don’t contain any beneficial fibre, vitamins or minerals. Therefore, eating large amounts of these foods on a regular basis overloads your body with excessive energy and deprives it of vital nutrients, which are both factors that weaken the immune system. Being overweight or underweight also weakens the immune system.
Eating a wide variety of foods in our diet is important in order to obtain a good variety of different micronutrients we need on a daily basis. No single food contains everything the body needs. Eating a variety of food ensures that we obtain a good proportion of the different micronutrients. If your eating habits are not what they should be, it may be a good idea to take a general multivitamin supplement, especially if you are going through a time where your nutrient needs may be increased (e.g. pregnancy, breastfeeding, illness, stress). However, we need to remember that food contains vitamins and minerals in their ideal form and ideal amounts, so nothing can replace a good diet. Supplementing with high doses of single vitamins or minerals is not a good idea as it can actually do more damage than good.
“Every different coloured vegetable and fruit contains different amounts of important micronutrients that support the functioning of the immune system.”
Eating a balanced diet also means that you get enough of the different macronutrients, that is, carbohydrates, proteins and fat. Carbohydrates are nutrients that supply the body with fuel for it’s day to day functioning. Choosing whole grains such as oats, brown rice, wholewheat bread and corn, for example, helps to increase the intake of essential nutrients such as A, E and B vitamins and magnesium. Vegetables and fruit are also a good source of carbohydrate and are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. We need to focus on eating a variety of them from all different colours. Every different coloured vegetable and fruit contains different amounts of important micronutrients that support the functioning of the immune system.
“Our gut is the biggest immune system organ and therefore keeping your gut healthy can also help to keep your immune system healthy and efficient.”
Vegetables, fruit and whole grains are all good sources of fibre in our diet. Fibre is beneficial to help support the growth and health of good bacteria (probiotics) in our gut. These probiotics help to keep the digestive system healthy. Our gut is the biggest immune system organ and therefore keeping your gut healthy can also help to keep your immune system healthy and efficient.
Protein helps to repair cells that are part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds in order to obtain all essential amino acids your body needs. Focusing on these good quality, lean protein choices help to strengthen your immune system.
Fats in our diet also help to form important parts of healthy cells in the body and therefore in the immune system as well. Good fat choices to include in your diet are plant fats such as peanut and other nut butters, olives and olive oil, canola oil, avocado and unsaturated margarine. Fatty fish such as salmon, trout, pilchards and sardines are good sources of omega-3 fats. These fats are anti-inflammatory and there is some unclear evidence that it may help to protect the immune system.
Eat Clean Namibia was established in January 2015 by Samantha du Toit. She had been practicing as a registered dietitian in Namibia for 7 years. You can get in touch with Eat Clean Namibia by clicking here
For additional resources about eating to boost your immunity, click here