“Have fun with flavor and color to boost your immune system this holiday season,” says Professor and Department Chair Anne VanBeber, R.D. With the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 and the holidays around the corner, VanBeber provides easy tips and recommendations of food and drink groups to consider when planning weeknight and holiday meals.
Since March, experts have strongly suggested adding vitamin C to our daily diet to boost immunity during the global pandemic. Lemon is high in vitamin C, and as an antioxidant, this helps our bodies prevent disease and reduce inflammation. VanBeber suggests adding lemon to your water each day. “Instead of plain water, add some lemon juice. Squeeze it in and then you can even add the whole rind. You can also add fresh grated ginger or ginger paste and raw honey for additional immune support,” VanBeber said. “If you bring a water bottle to work – add some lemon slices, and make sure to drink enough water each day to stay hydrated.”
This advice goes for warm or cold drinks. VanBeber recommends drinking more teas, which tend to contain phytochemicals – biologically active compounds found in plants. “Phyto is the root word for plant, and chemical means compounds, and phytochemicals help fight disease, keep our cells healthy, and boost immunity,” she said. VanBeber suggests a variety of teas such as green, black, white and oolong tea, and avoiding sweet teas high in sugar that are popular in the South. Green tea also contains lower caffeine levels than coffee, which may be beneficial during these more anxious times. Herbal infusion teas (turmeric, peppermint etc.) are also advantageous due to the nutrients they contain from other parts of the plant.
Red and Purple Foods
Dark red and purple fruits and vegetables such as blueberries, eggplant, raspberries, strawberries and cranberries each contain phytochemicals that boost the immune system. “For the holiday season try preparing fruit salads with these dark-colored berries – you can even squeeze some lemon juice and raw honey on top for added nutrients or cut up fresh mint or add some dried mint from your pantry and add it to the dressing,” VanBeber said.
Spices and Herbs
Spices and herbs come from different parts of the plant, but they have disease-fighting benefits and nutrients that are equivalent to whole foods. VanBeber suggests incorporating fresh or dried herbs into dishes whenever possible. “For example, if you are making mashed potatoes, add garlic or onion powder. If you are making roasted carrots – add some dill. Think of ways to add herbs and spices to what you already eat, and add a little extra,” she said. The “warming spices” such as cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and nutmeg can be added to oatmeal or overnight oats, pies and breads such as pumpkin, carrot or zucchini breads for added flavor and immune-boosting benefits.
Beans and Greens
Greens, high in chlorophyll – a powerful antioxidant, are popular during the holidays, and they provide a good source of vitamin A in plant form. Greens are also a significant aspect of the Mediterranean diet. Spinach, broccoli, arugula, kale, turnip greens, romaine and Bibb lettuce need to be emphasized because in the U.S., we often don’t eat enough servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. VanBeber suggests making a bed of greens with a drizzle of lemon juice and placing prepared food or meats on top of it for meals to incorporate more greens. Greens such as kale and spinach can also be added to soups. Making salads with popular salad kits or packaged greens from grocery stores is another way to incorporate greens. Simple dressings could include olive oil, vinegar and a little honey, agave nectar or maple syrup.
Legumes, such as lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans, or chickpeas are high in fiber, inexpensive and shelf-stable foods. Beans can be incorporated into soups and salads to help us get the daily source of fiber we need and often lack as Americans. Fiber also protects our gut, which is the first line of defense in our immune system.
Nuts, Seeds and Supplements
Nuts and seeds are foundational to the Mediterranean diet. People who eat nuts are known to have reduced chances of heart disease and other chronic diseases. Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, or pecans can easily be added to other vegetable dishes such as green beans or broccoli.
Zinc is known for boosting immunity and wound healing because it helps us build proteins. This is widely found in animal foods such as beef, fish, and oysters as well as tofu and seeds such as pumpkin seeds.
Vitamin C and D have been commonly referenced by leading experts during the global pandemic. Vitamin D3 can be derived from fortified foods such as cereal (be sure to check the nutrition labels) and fortified orange juice. Whole milk and mushrooms are additional sources of vitamin D, however the best sources come from fatty cold-water fish. “The acronym SMASH can help you to remember the types: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and halibut or herring,” VanBeber said.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Prebiotic foods such as legumes, onions, garlic, apple skins and bananas help to protect your gut. Probiotics include fermented and cultured foods such as kombucha, yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh, kimchi and fresh sauerkraut (not canned) promote a healthy gut and good bacteria to help us fight off illness. “Overall we need to focus on eating real foods – during the holiday seasons we need to have fruits, vegetables and good lean meats (if you eat meat), and avoid pre-packaged, high sodium foods that are devoid of nutritional value,” VanBeber said. “The newest finding in nutrition research is how our microbiome (our gut) bacteria works to keep us healthy. We need to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to fight disease and boost immunity.”
Don’t be afraid to make your holiday dishes fun, but most importantly – colorful with a variety of food groups!