Eating your way to a stronger immune system

By 1st Lt. Cara AdamsDecember 15, 2020

ASCII (Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — As we enter into the winter months and continue to strive to protect ourselves against COVID-19 and the flu, it is important to seek out different foods that help strengthen our body’s immune system.

Our body’s first response to any form of infection, injury or irritation is inflammation. Inflammation is vital to our health because it initiates the healing process and defends against foreign invaders. However, when this inflammatory response goes wrong or goes on for too long, it can trigger disease processes. This form of chronic inflammation over time can cause damage to the heart, brain and other organs.

Ways to reduce your risk of chronic inflammation include maintaining a healthy weight, managing stress levels and refraining from smoking and drinking alcohol excessively. But where does food come into play?

Eating a plant-based diet consisting of foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes can have great benefits for overall health. Plant foods contain substances called phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are plant (phyto) chemicals, or compounds in plants that contribute to their color, taste and smell.

They are found in all edible parts of plants, especially in the skin and peels of fruits and vegetables. Research suggests these substances have promising benefits especially when we consume a variety of colors.

Every color represents an abundance of specific nutrients that all have different properties, including inhibiting cancer and tumor growth, reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure, fighting viruses, improving eye health and improving function and structure of blood vessels.

Remember to eat all the colors of the rainbow

Studies report that eight in 10 people in the United States are falling short in almost every color category of phytonutrients.

So what should you do? Aim for five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day. And remember, benefits have shown to be greater when phytochemicals are consumed in food form rather than pill form.

Find foods in each color category below that you enjoy, and try incorporating a variety of them into your meals and snacks:

— Red: beets, cranberries, strawberries, bell peppers, raspberries, cherries, radishes and pomegranates.

— Yellow: acorn squash, mangoes, lemons, yellow carrots, spaghetti squash, pineapples and corn.

— Orange: sweet potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, cantaloupes, mandarin oranges, grapefruits and peaches.

— Green: honeydew melons, collard greens, kale, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, kiwi, avocado and edamame.

— Blue/Purple: eggplants, blueberries, figs, plums, blackberries, prunes, cabbages and grapes.

— White: taro root, mushrooms, turnips, parsnips, pears, onions, bean sprouts and garlic.

How to incorporate more color in your diet

If you are not a big fan of different types of fruits and vegetables, here are some tips and tricks to incorporate more colors into your diet:

— Try adding vegetables into meals where they are combined with other foods such as stir-fries or omelets where they take on the flavors from different sauces, cheeses and spices.

— Add berries, sliced banana, mango or pomegranate seeds to your oatmeal or yogurt for a sweet burst of flavor with breakfast or for a snack.

— Enjoy large, exciting salads that incorporate lots of colorful vegetables, fresh or dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

— Try frozen, microwavable bags of vegetables that are already seasoned or mixed in with other grains as a convenient option to add color to meals.

— Have frozen fruit on hand as a nutrient dense option to add into fruit smoothies and shakes.

— Experiment with different spices and seasonings on your vegetables — a little garlic powder goes a long way.

There are resources available to help

If you find yourself wanting to incorporate more plant-based foods into your diet but aren’t sure where to start, or simply want general guidance with nutrition, contact the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital’s Nutrition Care Division at 573.596.1762 to set up an appointment with a registered dietitian today. The team is offering scheduling for virtual appointments.

(Editor’s note: Adams is the chief of outpatient nutrition at GLWACH.)