Supporting a strong immune system with food

By Chef Mareya Ibrahim, is “The Fit Foodie” – a natural products industry expert, chef, holistic nutrition coach, award-winning entrepreneur/ inventor, and author of The Clean Eating Handbook, along with the #1 best-seller Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive (St. Martin’s Griffin).

We’ve heard it, and it’s engrained in us.  Food is medicine.  But really, let’s dive deep down into this idea. How did they deal with disease thousands of years ago, before conventional medicine and antibiotics?  The answer was in nature. Ancient civilizations became masters of using plants and herbs as their remedies. And the pharmaceuticals we have now are often derived from those medicinal plants – like garlic, onions, turmeric, thyme, black seed and so many more.  The use of spices and herbs with antimicrobial activity was necessary to ward off the threat of food-borne pathogens and life-threatening illnesses.

Being omnivores, we have a lot of foods to choose from, and convenience isn’t always in our favor.  While it’s much easier to roll up to a drive thru or lean on others to make food for us, we tend to lose our connection with our own nourishment.  There’s never been a time where owning our health is more important.  With the unprecedented pandemic and the daily stresses associated to adapting to it, our systems may have never been so challenged. Our nervous system, endocrine system, digestive system, lymphatic system, adrenal system AND our immune system and every other part of our body needs support, and it all begins with food.

Food is the fuel to not only give us the life force we need for energy and vitality, but it also helps us manage stress, helps us rest and sleep, helps us balance our hormones, and helps us armor up our immunity.  When there’s a crisis in one of our systems, the ‘machine’ becomes at risk of breaking down.  

Boosting your own body’s immunity and ability to fight infection is on your own plate.  Eat a variety of fresh fruit and veggies, especially those loaded with antioxidants and Vitamin C.  Eating to thrive means getting a balance of essential amino acids (protein), good fat and slow burning carbohydrates so you fuel your body for maximum efficiency and strength. Adding prebiotic (garlic, onions, fiber) and probiotic rich foods (pickles, kimchi, fermented foods like miso, tempeh and black garlic) will all help with getting your gut health in check – and that’s EVERYTHING. Maybe even more important than food is hydration.  Drinking enough clear liquids every day to flush your system of toxins is key.  You can add some lemon juice or raw apple cider vinegar to your water to help with controlling bacteria, too. 

While there’s no silver bullet, we can take big strides in protecting our incredible bodies from succumbing to sickness with my top 8 immunity boosting foods

1) Nuts and seeds (lysine rich foods) – Lysine is a building block for protein. It’s an essential amino acid because your body cannot make it, so you need to obtain it from food. Studies show lysine can increase the number of new cells at a wound. It may even promote the formation of new blood vessels.  Lysine may play a role in reducing anxiety, and a study found that it blocked receptors involved in stress response.  Getting lysine from proteins is a smart idea, and you can also find them in plant-based options like nuts and seeds.  I love cashews, walnuts, almonds, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds (pepitas), sunflower seeds and pistachios in a lot of my cooking. What a powerhouse – and full of flavor!

2) Yogurt (probiotic rich foods) – The role of the microbiome in our overall immunity is significant. Numerous health conditions, such as obesity, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and low-grade inflammation seems to be more  frequently diagnosed in people with low diversity in the gut microbiota than in people with high diversity.  Yogurt contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, also named “probiotic bacteria”. These bacteria may  impact  the gut bacteria, providing health benefits.  Plus, yogurt is a great source of protein, with many plant-based versions available.  Just watch for ‘added sugar’ and try and stick to plain yogurt enjoyed in a more savory way.  One of my favorite condiments is yogurt sauce, made with garlic, cucumber and lemon juice.  Yum! Other probiotic rich, fermented foods include kimchee, sauerkraut, pickled veggies, raw apple cider vinegar, tempeh and black garlic.

3) Microgreens (phytonutrient rich foods) – The most nutrient-dense foods on the planet are leafy greens and the benefits of all the fiber, phytonutrients and cell regenerating power are immeasurable!  It’s just more than our minds can even handle.  But what’s even more amazing are microgreens, which are the pre-mature shoot of the plant that grows in just weeks – they can be up 40 times more potent in phytochemicals than their mature counterparts, according to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Plus, you don’t need to chop them.  Just wash them with Eat Cleaner Fruit + Veggie Wash and layer them onto your salads, bowls and into smoothies.  The spicier ones, like radish sprouts, add a ton of flavor with just a little bite – so it’s true, small is powerful. Also, lean into cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and other cruciferous veggies for their disease-fighting power. 

4) Berries (Antioxidant rich foods) – Antioxidant up! Berries are not only a potent and readily-available way to deliciously load up on vitamin C, what makes berries so special is their high levels of phytochemicals — those naturally occurring nutrients that help protect cells from damage and the key to a healthy immune system is healthy cells.  They’re also good for your heart, can help prevent high blood pressure and can help manage diabetes because they are low GI – glycemic index – which means they won’t spike your blood sugar.  A consistent blood sugar is key to keeping your body in check.  I can’t stress this enough!  So feast on blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, goji berries and açaí berries – as long as there’s no sugar added.  Other antioxidant-rich foods include tomatoes, artichokes, dark chocolate (yes!), beans and leafy greens like kale, cabbage and spinach.

5) Garlic & Onions (prebiotic rich foods) – Garlic and onions aren’t only a delicious base to almost every culture’s indigenous cuisine, it’s the basis of many of our modern day antibiotics because of their virus-fighting power.  These prebiotics are also what we need to get the probiotics to do their good work, so kind of think of it as the ‘fertilizer’ for a healthy growing situation.  Onions as well as garlic have many health benefits. Onions regulate blood levels of bad cholesterol and good cholesterol. Also, onions are the best if you eat them in their raw state. Onions, like garlic, decreases risk of developing blood clots. Also, onion fights against viruses and bacteria and they prevent and heal infections. I’m a huge fan of fermented black garlic, as you can eat easily eat it raw and its creamy, almost caramel-like flavor lends itself beautifully to anything you’d use regular garlic in.

6) Beans (zinc rich foods) – Beans, beans, the magical fruit – yes, fruit!  These power-packed legumes definitely have an important place in your fit lifestyle. Beans are an excellent source of fiber, protein, B vitamins and zinc – which can help ward away colds and viral infection. They belong to the Fabaceae family of plants, which is what sets them apart from other fruits and seeds. Beans offer a range of potential health benefits due to their high nutrient content. Some of the potential benefits that they provide include decreasing blood sugar levels and providing pure plant-based protein for energy and those essential amino acids you need to fight infection.  Soybeans – the kind that are non-GMO – definitely have a place in your diet, especially if you’re menopausal.  Stock up on a variety of pre-cooked, canned beans to build up a strong pantry and add them to your salads, soups, veggie burgers and stuffed peppers – I have some great recipes for those – and even desserts (black bean brownies are the bomb! you can also get zinc from wild rice, sunflower seeds and nutritional yeast.

7) Wild-caught salmon, mackerel and sardines (Omega 3-rich foods) – We’ve all heard about the benefits of fatty fish, but how can omega-3s improve immune function? Through their effects on cell membranes, including white blood cells. Every cell in the body needs homeostasis—a constant internal environment. And a healthy cell membrane, the wall between the internal cell and the outside, is key. Without this membrane, cells lose their ability to hold water and vital nutrients, as well as the ability to communicate.

Cell membranes are composed chiefly of fatty acids derived from the diet, so good fats in our everyday diets are important. Don’t be afraid of canned seafood to fulfill this dietary need, because it’s available year-round and always wild caught.  Try my recipe for Seafood-stuffed avocados in my book.

8) Spicy peppers, horseradish and wasabi (Capsaicin/Spicy foods) – That burn that runs through your nose and makes you want to good-cry is a good thing.  It’s nature’s super immune booster, and the active ingredient is capsaicin.  Capsaicin has been widely studied for its pain-relieving effects, its cardiovascular benefits, and its ability to prevent ulcers. Capsaicin also effectively opens and drains congested nasal passages in addition to boosting the immune system making it a great natural cold and flu remedy. In addition to its high capsaicin content, cayenne peppers are also an excellent source of vitamin A, through its concentration of pro-vitamin A carotenoids including beta-carotene – so the benefits are immense, if you can take the burn!  Start slowly and build your tolerance from there.  If you stock your spice cabinet, it will take you places both health wise and on the taste spectrum.

Want more fit food in your life? Check out our Eat To Thrive program and my book, EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A FORK: THE REAL DISH ON EATING TO THRIVE for the recipes mentioned in this post. And visit www.eatcleaner.com for a wealth of free ebooks, recipes and tips to eat cleaner, everyday.

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