Never before has society been so fixated on germs and immunity. Well never fear, these foods and supplements will boost your immunity and help you fight infection this winter.
At any time, but especially during the threat of winter ailments like cold, flu and Covid, we need our immune systems to be performing at their peak. Before we talk about which foods or supplements you should add to your diet to help protect yourself, we must remember that the absolute top priorities must be to eat, rest/sleep and manage stress. These three things affect the immune system more than any expensive supplement ever could. So make sure not to have too many late nights these school holidays!
Phytonutrients are non-caloric substances naturally found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, and even teas that have health benefits including positively affecting the immune response. “Polyphenols promote immunity to foreign pathogens via various pathways”1.
Phytochemicals are the compounds responsible for the bright colours in blueberries, purple grapes, black beans, red beetroot, and even the orange of turmeric. The more colourful your range of food choices, the better. Most of us know that we should eat 5+ servings of vegetables and 2-3 servings of fruit each day, but this is even more important right now. Cooked, frozen, or raw all have their benefits so prepare them however you prefer – whatever is quick, easy and to your liking.
Stock up on green tea and herbal teas, but remember that green tea does have caffeine, so don’t over do it, particularly before bed time. My top tea recommendations are echinacea, elderberry, red clover, lemon balm, oregano/ marjoram, nettle and mint. Some might enjoy drinking kombucha which combines tea with probiotics and now comes in a huge variety of delicious flavours and organic varieties. There’s many brands to choose from these days and they are readily available, even at your local service station or cafe.
Vitamin C is a well-known immune system essential, but people can go way overboard with vitamin C tablets and powders (see my Dance Informa article on this topic). We need about 65-300 mg per day, not huge doses of 1000 mg all at one time. The best food sources include citrus fruits like oranges, capsicum, pawpaw, rock melon, kiwi, mango, berries and even broccoli and the skins of potatoes, believe it or not! So just wash your potatoes well, don’t peel them.
Vitamin A, is known for helping to delay the initiation and severity of autoimmune conditions and can also help the body fight viral infections2. It is best obtained through foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut pumpkin, spinach, and other leafy greens.
Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because when the skin absorbs sun, it makes a form of vitamin D in the body. Try to get 30 minutes total of sun per day, but make sure not to get burnt. This vitamin is absolutely essential for the immune response. Food sources include eggs, salmon, and cod liver oil, but it’s hard to get adequate amounts through only food. Supplements of vitamin D3 (the active form) are found in supermarkets or chemists and are worth the money. Recommendations are to take 800-1500 IU per day. Don’t mega dose this vitamin unless under the care of a medical professional.
Vitamin E is a key antioxidant, and it protects membranes of the lungs. Vitamin E is found in nuts, sunflower seeds, oils, peanut butter, avocados, and mangos. Vitamin E may also reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections in the elderly2, so it’s a great addition to the diet of our older loved ones right now.
Iron deficiency is extremely common in female dancers. Did you know that poor iron status can significantly impair the immune system? How can you eat more iron on a budget, when meat can be expensive, or if you don’t each meat? Start with a huge amount of mixed fresh leafy greens (kale, spinach, etc), then steam or sauté them for 2-3 minutes. Add copious amounts of garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice (the vitamin C from the lemon will increase iron absorption). Toss with any cooked or canned beans of your choice and a little sea salt and pepper. You now have an iron packed meal to go, that you can serve with vitamin A containing sweet potatoes. Dried fruits like sultanas and apricots also contain iron and they can be a great snack on the go.
And lastly, don’t forget that mushrooms, garlic, ginger and turmeric have great immune boosting qualities.
Have a healthy winter dancers!
2. Modern Nutrition in Health and Disease 10 ed. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2006.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at email@example.com