A great way to help our kids stay healthy and fight colds and viruses is by eating a diet full of nutrient-dense foods. Many whole foods like fruits and vegetables are full of immune-boosting nutrients that can easily be incorporated into meals, snacks and beverages.
Nutrients identified as essential for the growth and function of immune cells include Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Zinc, Selenium, Iron and protein. Good news: these nutrients can be found in both animal and plant-based foods.
On the other hand, frequently consuming highly processed foods with limited variety makes adequate intake of these immune-boosting foods challenging, and this can negatively impact a healthy immune system. The Western diet tends to be higher in refined sugar, food additives and red meat while lower in fruits and vegetables. The lack of adequate nutrient-dense foods can cause undesirable disturbances in our gut health because of the negative impact on intestinal microorganisms, leading to chronic inflammation of the gut and suppressed immunity. About 70 to 80 percent of our immune system is housed in our gut, so what we eat has a large impact on the kind of microbes that live in our intestines.
In general, a diet that is rich in plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes can support the growth of healthy microbes helping with immunity. Some research also supports the consumption of probiotics and prebiotics via food or supplements. Probiotics contain live beneficial bacteria and prebiotics contain
fiber and oligosaccharides that feed this healthy bacteria. Examples of probiotic foods include Kefir, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha tea and yogurt with live cultures. Examples of prebiotic foods include: asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, bananas and seaweed. Eating a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains will ensure adequate intake of prebiotics.
When deciding what to pack kids for lunch, and what to prepare for breakfast and dinner, I encourage finding simple ways to bump up the nutritional value. Some easy examples are including veggies in lunch, dinner and snacks and providing fruit at breakfast, snacks and/or as a sweet after-dinner treat for dessert.
Great substitutes for “crunchy” processed snacks such as chips and crackers are baby carrots, sliced cucumbers, celery topped with peanut butter and raisins (ants on a log), freeze-dried fruit and popcorn.
The following are some ways to support a healthy immune system for the whole family:
- Eat a balanced diet that is rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean proteins. The Mediterranean diet is a great example to follow.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and consuming foods with a higher water content such as fruits and vegetables.
- Focus on good sleep hygiene. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly. A great way to get adequate sleep is to establish a bedtime routine/structure to go to sleep around the same time each night. Our bodies have a natural clock (circadian rhythm) that regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness. Establishing a consistent sleeping pattern can promote deeper and more restful sleep.
- Aim to manage stress in healthy ways. Easier said than done, especially right now I know. However simply strategies such as exercise, mediation, journaling or engaging in a new hobby can help when stress and/or anxiety is elevated. Even making time to breathe deeply for a few minutes can do wonders for your emotional health.
- Practice good hygiene by washing your hands often. This includes when coming in from outdoors, after using the restroom, after coughing or blowing your nose.
- Stay active. Go on family walks, have family dance parties, do fitness challenges with the fam. Make it FUN!
- Take a daily multi-vitamin. This helps fill in the gaps in nutrients that we may not consume enough of daily in our diet. Multi-vitamins are great for the entire family but should be age-specific to ensure the appropriate nutrient recommendations are met.
Umo Callins is a proud wife, mother of three beautiful kids, a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. She owns Well Rooted Health and Nutrition, a private practice in Oklahoma City where she works with individuals and families to improve health and well-being with nutrition and lifestyle changes. She also co-owns a gym, 180Physique, in Edmond with her husband. Follow Umo @wellrooted_hn on social media and wellrootedhn.com.