Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in The OBSERVER and on the second Sunday of each month in The Post-Journal.
It's the time of year when you start to hear a lot about how to avoid coming down with colds and flu. All kinds of news reports and articles pop up making interesting claims. Some insist certain foods are super foods and if you eat enough of them you won't get sick, while others say there are certain nutritional supplements you can buy that will boost your immune system. Wouldn't it be nice if we only had to do one or two simple and easy things like that to avoid seasonal illnesses?
If you really want to avoid getting sick you'd be wise to think about what makes us susceptible to illness. People with poor hygiene habits and those who fail to take advantage of available vaccines can spread disease, but lack of exercise and a poor diet are what will likely lead you down the path to a weakened immune system. That weakened immune system will then leave you far more likely to get sick. Thankfully, your immune system is something you have a lot of control over. So, if you want to stay healthy, strengthen it. It's not hard.
Proper nutrition is one of the most essential things you can do to build a strong immune system, but exactly what does proper nutrition mean? It means you need to eat enough nutrients. Nutrients are the compounds in foods that help your body grow and repair itself. They include include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. Your body makes nonessential nutrients, but the essential nutrients you need come from your diet. If you don't get those essential nutrients, you're likely to get sick. And even thought the flu season typically runs from October to May, you really need to put more thought into what you put in your mouth year round. It can make a huge difference in how well your body fights off cold and flu germs.
To maintain a healthy immune system, you need to eat a healthy balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats. If you're selecting these kinds of foods most of the time, you're probably getting the nutrients and antioxidants that you need to boost your immune system. That is if you're eating enough calories. For most of us, that's around 2,000 calories a day. Even if, at your age, size and body type, you require fewer calories than the average adult, eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day makes you vulnerable to illness. At the same time, you don't want to eat too many calories because that can lead to obesity and another whole host of health problems.
So, be aware of how many calories you're eating and drinking to make sure those calories count. Avoid eating a lot of sweets, processed and fast foods because they are lacking in the nutrients you need to stay healthy. That includes avoiding sugar sweetened beverages.
In addition to sugar, they've also loaded with calories, so you'll still feel hungry even after you finish drinking them. A lot of people wonder how juice fits in this picture. Many people think that drinking a glass of juice at breakfast every day will keep them healthy.
Especially orange juice, because it's loaded with vitamin C. You have to remember that it's also loaded with naturally occurring sugar and lots of calories. It's not bad for you, but you need to drink it in moderation. Plus, when given the choice, it's always best to eat your fruit rather than drink it because you'll also get the benefit of the fruit's fiber. If you do choose to drink juice, be sure you drink no more than 6 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day. That includes all fruit juices and it's probably why the old adage says, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away," rather than saying, "A glass of cider a day keeps the doctor away." Instead of relying heavily on juices, stay hydrated by drinking low-calorie beverages like tea, plain water or water with a twist of citrus.
And remember, if you fill up on sweet beverages and junk food, you will most likely overeat, but you still won't eat enough of the nutrient dense food your body needs to operate efficiently.
So, when choosing foods to eat or to feed your loved ones, make the best choices possible. While it is true that some foods are more nutritious than others, rather than focusing solely on the specific foods and beverages some people promise will boost your immune system, make a point to eat a wide variety of healthy foods from all of the food groups.
Almost any fruit or vegetable is a good choice, especially ones rich in antioxidants like selenium, zinc, beta carotene, and vitamins A, C, E. You just can't go wrong if you reach for brightly colored produce. Make sure your diet includes lots of beautiful and deeply colored vegetables and fruit like sweet potatoes, broccoli, red peppers, tomatoes, collard greens, berries and kale.
To stay healthy, you also need to eat enough lean protein, foods rich in vitamin D, and choose more foods featuring omega-3 fatty acids. Select from foods like fish, poultry, lean meats, eggs, beans, seeds and nuts. You can also keep your gastrointestinal track healthy by eating foods like low-fat yogurts with active cultures that contain probiotics and are also fortified with vitamin D. And you can pack additional nutrients into your diet by seasoning your foods with herbs, onions, garlic and ginger instead of relying heavily on salt, butter and cream.
The most important thing to remember about food choices is that a healthy, well-balanced diet is made up of a wide assortment of foods. Make sure your diet is varied. Fill at least half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables at every meal, and make every calorie count.
If, despite everything, you do find yourself feeling under the weather, don't risk making others ill. If you're contagious, stay home. Get plenty of rest. Eat what you can tolerate. If you are nauseous, try some chicken soup or broth because you will need to stay well hydrated, and salty liquids will make you thirsty. Warm beverages may also help you feel better. Many health professionals recommend the BRAT diet for those suffering with colds and flu. It includes easily digestible foods like bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. These foods are well tolerated by most people. They can help you ingest enough food to return to good health so you can resume eating a more nutritionally balanced diet.
Just don't waste a lot of your hard-earned money on unproven products that claim they will boost your immune system. Instead, spend more effort on living a healthy lifestyle. You'll be more likely to fight off the colds and flu the people around you are suffering if you eat well and get plenty of exercise every day. Good nutrition is incredibly important for good health, so eat smart each and every day.
If you, or people you know, are struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, it's putting healthy food within everyone's reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.
And if you're looking for even more ideas to improve your family's health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Eat Smart New York program. It helps people learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community-based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information, call 664-9502, ext. 217, or visit our website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.
Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.
If you're looking for healthy new recipes you can find lots of tasty ones at choosemyplate.gov, by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website or you can try this easy and good for you stew:
butternut squash (3 cups cubed)
bunch kale (2 cups chopped)
onion (1/2 cup chopped)
2 cloves garlic
1 cups diced fresh tomatoes
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon yellow mustard
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
2 cups cooked white rice
Be Creative! Substitute kale with spinach or other fresh greens. Use brown rice instead of white rice.
1. Peel and seed squash. Cut into inch cubes.
2. Wash and chop kale.
3. Chop onion and mince garlic.
4. To make sauce: combine tomatoes, lemon juice, brown sugar, mustard, oregano, and salt in medium bowl; set aside.
5. Heat oil in frying pan on medium. Add onion and garlic. Saute 3 minutes, or until onion is soft.
6. Stir in squash and sauce. Cover pan, increase heat to medium-high, and cook 15 minutes, or until squash is tender.
7. Add rice and kale. Cover and cook another 5 minutes.
Yields about 6 servings
Nutrition Facts: Serving Size 1/6 recipe (8.9 ounces), 150 Calories, 20 Calories from Fat, 2g Total Fat, 3% Calories from Fat, 0g Saturated Fat, 0g Trans Fat, 0mg Cholesterol, 460mg Sodium, 32g Total Carbohydrate, 5g Dietary Fiber, 6g Sugars, 3g Protein, 300% Vitamin A, 8% Calcium, 60% Vitamin C, 10% Iron
Source: GET FRESH! Division of Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, 2001.