It is with a heavy, but hopeful heart that I write about food and health. Due to the COVID-19 quarantine, most of us are staying at least six feet away, so my typical interview will be postponed until further notice. Perhaps next month I will use the now ubiquitous virtual platform to deliver the next interview. For now, let’s all give thanks for our health and the time we are spending with loved ones. If this is not the case for you and you are experiencing illness or loneliness—do reach out to a neighbor or trusted friend. Even if we are limiting exposure, talking on the phone can make all the difference. As for keeping well, I want to throw out a couple tips about keeping your immune system strong to prevent infection but to also help us heal faster if we find ourselves sick.
Food itself will not cure you or prevent infection exclusively. Yet, eating nutritious food maintains and encourages a healthy immune system, especially as we attempt to ward off and discontinue further transmission of seasonal and novel viruses. Keep in mind that while I mention important vitamins and minerals to include in your diet, it is the whole foods that contain these nutrients that you should eat. Do not purchase or start any supplement regimen without consulting with your primary care provider or registered dietitian. Supplements, while good in some cases, can be harmful in certain situations or in people with special conditions. When in doubt, always ask a trusted professional!
Vitamin C is especially important when protecting our cells from oxidative stress (which happens when we get sick) and causes inflammation throughout the body that can be hard to kick and will keep us feeling sick longer. Eat 2-3 servings of these every day—including oranges, limes, lemons, tomatoes, greens, broccoli, berries, pineapple, peppers, even cauliflower and fresh parsley!
Another defender in the body, this vitamin is important to prevent further stress when our cells are dealing with infection. Vitamin E is in olive and seed oils, nuts and leafy green vegetables. Trout and salmon even have some too.
The sunshine vitamin! Think of vitamin D as a defender in our bodies and ready to attack any foreign invaders. If we are deficient in Vitamin D, we are less able to fight infection. The best way to keep levels normal in the body is to get at least 5-15 minutes of sunshine every day. The next best option would be to take a supplement, which could be as little as 1000 IUs or as much as 50000 IUs depending on how deficient your levels are (which is determined by a simple blood test). It is safe to take at least a 1000 IU supplement throughout the winter months. Third, eat your vitamin D! Some foods and beverages are fortified with vitamin D like cows milk or soy milk. Egg yolks and fish also contain vitamin D.
This vitamin is our first line of defense! It is all about maintaining the structure of our cells, especially along the respiratory tract and gut. If we do not have enough Vitamin A, our body has a very difficult time making the antibodies our bodies need to neutralize pathogens. You can get Vitamin A in your diet by eating egg yolks, fish, cheese, tofu, nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans and legumes, and bright orange and red or green leafy vegetables—these contain beta-carotene which can be converted to vitamin A in the body.
These vitamins encourage apoptosis—or an “implosion” of infected cells. You must eat foods that contain these vitamins routinely in order for this to work! The most important B vitamins are:
B6, found in green leafy vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, meat, and grains.
B9, or folate, is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. A synthetic version of this is put into processed grain products like breads and cereals as folic acid. Buyer beware though, some people have a sensitivity to folic acid and may not be getting the true benefits of folate due to malabsorption.
B12 is only found in animal products, like eggs, meat and dairy, but it is also fortified in soymilk and can be found in algae, mushrooms, and nutritional yeast.
Iron, Zinc, and Selenium (Minerals)
Eating a diet rich in iron, zinc and selenium has many benefits, but all contribute to helping us fight infection and mop up the damage afterwards so that we can get healthier quicker. A balanced diet rich in leafy greens, nuts, beans, seeds, meats, fish, and mushrooms will keep your body defending against pathogens and keeping you healthy with strong antioxidants.
There’s no guarantee that drinking water and warm tea will keep us from getting sick with a virus, but we do know that our immune systems are much stronger when we our cells are hydrated. In the event that we do come in contact with the virus or get sick from it, hydrated cells function better and remove toxins. Stay away from sports drinks and sodas, as the sugar in these beverages may outweigh the hydrating benefits of water. If you are dehydrated and want to naturally raise electrolyte levels, eat foods that are high in potassium, sodium, magnesium, and chloride, like bananas, nuts, lemons, leafy greens, coconut water, seeds, etc. Even taking an Epsom salt bath, rich in magnesium may help—and will also reduce stress and anxiety.
There might be quite a bit keeping you up at night right now, but sleep may be one of the more important things to check off your “quarantine” list. Try to find a good wind-down routine at night: drinking tea, playing a game with a partner, reading a book, meditation or stretching in a dark room, or listening to soft music. Turn off the TV, radio and social media. These outlets may be helpful during the day to stay informed, but will only inspire panic later in the day. Be vigilant and respectful of your body and give it the rest that it needs. When our bodies are well rested, our immune systems are much stronger. Strive for getting at least 7 hours each night. On the flip side, if you are sleeping more than 10 hours each night and are experiencing a drop in motivation, change in mood, unwillingness to engage, fear or anxiety, make sure you talk to a loved one or trained counselor about any mental health concerns that may be arising due to the current situation. You are not alone. Communicate any change in behavior to trusted family members and health professionals.
Keep that blood flowing my friends! When we move our bodies, white blood cells are created which defend against bacteria and viruses. Just 20 minutes of low to moderate intensity per day should do the trick. Online classes offered by MyFitnessPal or the YMCA, among many others, are being published every day. Go check them out!
It is understood that the best way to slow down transmission of COVID-19 is to stay in our homes. There will be a time, however, when a household member has to run to the store or to a necessary appointment. While out and about, it is not unreasonable to think that exposure may occur. When in doubt, use normal cleaning and disinfecting procedures to keep surfaces in your house free from unwanted invaders. Use the Centers for Disease Control guidelines by visiting https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/cleaning-disinfection.html.
It may sound a little “old school,” but this is the time to appreciate all that we do have. Virtual platforms are allowing us to stay in contact like never before. Send some love and inspiration to friends and family through the internet, text, and phone. “Share” positive information on social media and help one another rise above the uncertainty. Commit to playing that board game you haven’t pulled out in years or dancing around the house. Literally no one is watching! Find joy in telling jokes and stories to household members; maybe taking out mom’s old recipes and giving her famous cornbread a try.
Love and health to you all as we take this one day at a time.
If you or someone you know needs help securing healthy food during the COVID-19 quarantine, please contact Kati Burton at 406-317-3751 or email@example.com.
This column is a project of Kati Burton, CSKT Guided Care Dietitian. She hopes to bring local voices to the table to discuss food traditions and memories that reconnect us with our food history and help us to eat well.