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COVID-19 Recipes to eat that can fast-track healthier immune system

COVID-19 Recipes to eat that can fast-track healthier immune system

COVID-19 has led to limited food budgets, and shelter-in-place adds a layer of complexity to buying and planning meals. At the same time, we’re bombarded with ads shouting “Take this supplement to boost your immunity!” So, what’s a person to do?

Many people give in to the pressure of panic-buying. Along with toilet paper, we stock up on foods we might not usually buy, such as:
Canned vegetables
Shelf-stable basics, like bulk dry beans
Excessive produce
Dry grains like oats and rice
Canned meat or fish (like anchovies…)
Filling your cart with the basics might make you feel secure in the short term. But as Dr. Chu found, it’s a different ballgame when you get these items home. Can you make healthy meals with shelf-stable foods? Will the family eat your creation? And does food really boost our immunity? Yes, yes, and yes – over time.

I field questions like these often as director of UT Southwestern’s Culinary Medicine Program. We help people transform food preparation and eating into a healthier part of their daily lives. The program focuses on creating budget-friendly meals with shelf-stable ingredients, as well as mindful eating practices.

The COVID-19 quarantine is the perfect time to build a healthier relationship with food and discover ways to make easy, affordable, nutritious, and delicious meals with shelf-stable products at home.

But first, we need to clear up a common misperception about “boosting immunity.”

There’s no way to fast-track a healthier immune system
There’s a lot of buzz right now about ways to boost immunity to fight COVID-19. But there is no one superfood, supplement, or “magic bullet” that will render you impervious to viruses and respiratory infections.

Especially during an outbreak, a short-term healthy eating plan isn’t enough to reduce your risk. A sustained, long-game approach to building immunity makes more sense.

When we get sick, much of the damage that occurs in the body is not due to the virus itself but to the body’s immune response. The body may overreact as it tries to contain the virus, allowing what might have been just a cough or the sniffles to progress into a serious lower respiratory infection.

Strengthening your immune system through multiple self-care channels – healthy diet, regular exercise, and mental health care – is the most effective strategy. And building a healthy diet begins with focusing on what we eat and our relationship with food.

Nutrition and intention
Eating a balanced diet is important for bolstering our immune systems over time. “Balanced” means eating strategically to nourish your body and mind. Two ways to achieve this include following the Mediterranean nutrition plan and practicing “intentional eating.”

The Mediterranean diet focuses on plant-based nutrition with less emphasis on meat and dairy – perfect for quarantine, because many key ingredients are shelf stable and likely in your pantry already.

Research has shown that following the Mediterranean diet can help reduce risks for heart attack, stroke, and death by approximately 30% over less than five years. The diet has also been linked with reduced risks of cancer, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. One study even refers to the diet as “the gold standard in preventive medicine” for its combination of anti-inflammatory and nutritious foods.

To get started, we recommend this six-step plan. You might try one step at a time, due to limited shopping options:

Try to eat the rainbow – 5 to 6 servings a day of different colored fruits and vegetables. Each color provides unique nutrients and immune-supporting antioxidants. Frozen or canned is fine if the food is packed in natural juice or water.
Swap white grains (rice, flour, pasta) and cereals (sugars) for whole-grain options, such as oats, whole wheat bread, quinoa, and brown rice. Aim for five to six servings a day.
Eat legumes such as beans, lentils, and peanuts to get more fiber and minerals. Try to get one serving a day.
Cook with olive oil and snack on nuts and seeds. These “healthy fats” also provide micronutrients. Limit olive oil to less than 4 tablespoons a day, and nuts/seeds to about a handful daily.
Have meat just once a day or less. Replace red meat with fish or leaner options, like chicken or turkey. Keep red meat consumption to less than twice a week.
Drink eight to 10 glasses of water daily.

Following this eating pattern gives us adequate amounts of micronutrients that are linked with immune system health, such as:

Zinc: Important for wound healing. Found in lean meats, seafood, milk, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts
Iron: Aids in non-specific immunity, the body’s first line of defense. Found in lentils, spinach, tofu, and white beans
Vitamin A: Helps regulate our immune response. Found in sweet potatoes, carrots, red bell pepper, spinach, black-eye peas, and mango
Vitamin C: Helps protect cells from oxidative stress, which is a product of infection or chronic inflammation. Found in broccoli, cantaloupe, kale, oranges, strawberries, tomatoes, guava, and lychee
Vitamin E: Also helps defend against oxidative stress. Found in nuts, seeds, wheat germ, green leafy vegetables, avocado, and shrimp
Vitamin B6: Supports more efficient reactions between different parts of our immune system. Found in green vegetables, chickpeas, and cold-water fish such as tuna or salmon
How to eat a balanced diet during the pandemic
Physically apart, together at heart. Nearly every culture associates meal times with togetherness. Thanks to video call services like Zoom, Skype, or Facetime, we can still convene, shelter-in-place-style, to virtually prepare and enjoy meals together. Several of our medical students and internal teams do this weekly to stay connected.

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