Trying to stay healthy has become a global priority. To be clear – what you eat will not prevent any virus or illness, however food is vital in supporting a strong immune system.
That means what you do in your own kitchen matters. Your nutrition also plays a role in boosting and supporting mental health – something that is undoubtedly going to be tested for many of us under increased stress, anxiety or simply because our normal routines, structures, social and sports outlets have been altered.
Here are some nutrition tips for supporting physical and mental health:
- Keep your energy up. Total energy intake is important for maintaining the immune system – to protect cells from oxidative damage, to produce and enable functioning of enzymes, and maintain proper structure and function of tissues. Both very high, and very low, energy intakes increase risk of infection and illness. Be smart about matching energy intakes to training and activity requirements. Get plenty of carbs – ideally in the form of fruits and vegetables (frozen, canned or fresh), and high quality protein for cell and hormone function. You should skip or minimize the refined foods and sugars, though, as these types of carbs only serve to increase inflammation and actually boost your chance of getting sick (or injured), and can dampen mood and energy levels over time.
- Eat the rainbow: Color on the plate means a variety of nutrients. Antioxidants and polyphenols, vitamins A, C, D and E, B6 and B12 along with iron, zinc and selenium and adequate amino acids (proteins) are critical components for maintaining immune and cognitive health. If access to color and fresh food becomes difficult, try and add spices and herbs – even dried ones bring not just flavor and interest to meals, but boost nutrients. Spices such as ginger, garlic and chili may even have antibacterial and antiviral properties.
- Eat plenty of fats: Fats are so important to stay healthy and happy. Any natural sources of fat are great – think avocados, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, egg yolks, olive oil, coconut oil and even fats from pastured animals which contain surprising amounts of Omega 3 fats.
- Stay hydrated: A well-functioning immune system needs plenty of fluid to keep working optimally.
- Keep moving – but pay close attention to recovery nutrition: The good news for athletes is that regular exercise strengthens the immune system. However, exhaustive or intense training suppresses the immune system and the body’s ability to fight off illness and infection. This means the period after a workout is a critical time – practice good hygiene and make sur to eat and drink. A recovery snack or meal actually doubles as an immunity booster.
- Look after your gut: The majority of your immune system is located in your gut – keeping your gut healthy and maintaining the integrity of the mucosal barrier is critical for health, but also mental wellbeing, mood and cognitive function. Include probiotics (such as kombucha, yogurt, kefir, kim-chee, miso) to encourage a healthy gut microbiome as well as prebiotics (green bananas, plantains, onions, garlic, resistant starches).
- Soak up the sun: Vitamin D on a daily basis is essential for the immune system, so enjoy some sunshine when you can. Food sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver and dairy foods.
- Sleep and stress management are critically important for immune system support, and obviously for mental wellbeing.
- Look after each other and be kind – an important and evidence-based (and entirely non-nutritional, unless kindness involves shopping, cooking or making cups of tea for others) method for improving health of yourself and those around you.
Pip Taylor is a dietitian, sports nutritionist and professional triathlete from Australia. This story originally appeared in the May, 2020 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.