By Gina O’Toole, neonatal and clinical dietitian at CHOC
With kids back in school, cold and flu season at our doorstep, and holiday gatherings around the corner, it is important to fuel our bodies with healthy, immune-strengthening whole foods. A healthy diet in combination with adequate sleep, exercise and frequent handwashing will give you the best shot at preventing illness and a faster recovery if you do get sick.
Our immune systems are incredibly complex. The body is continually making the perfect balance of a variety of immune cells to help us combat the bacteria and viruses we are exposed to. The phrase, “boosting our immune systems,” may be an over-simplification as the different types and amounts of immune cells in our body vary when we are fighting an infection or illness. Instead, a healthy lifestyle and good nutrition helps our bodies and immune system function at its best.
A word on supplement use for families
People often visit the supplement aisle to “boost” their immunity by consuming high doses of specific nutrients. Supplements (vitamins, minerals or herbs) should be taken with caution as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require routine testing.
Supplements can cause side effects on their own or interact with other prescribed medications. If purchasing supplements, make sure they have been third-party tested to ensure they actually contain the ingredients listed on the label and are not contaminated with harmful substances.
Look for these designations from third-party labs on supplement labels to ensure their quality:
Whole foods can help strengthen the immune system
By choosing whole foods — such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes — the body is supplied with essential nutrients. Whole, unprocessed foods (think chicken breast versus chicken nuggets) have not been modified and stripped of the essential nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals (chemicals in plants that promote health).
Additionally, many whole foods have a combination of nutrients that work together to promote health benefits which are not seen when consumed in isolation or as a supplement.
Eating seasonally offers valuable nutrients
Eating what’s in season can help supply our bodies with some excellent immune-strengthening nutrients. This fall and winter check out your local farmers’ market to stock up on some great food options that contain the following nutrients:
- Vitamin A (or Beta Carotene) is an antioxidant to protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals. High levels can be found in sweet potatoes, butternut squash, carrots, broccoli and spinach.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant and the building block for collagen, which aids in wound healing. It is plentiful in citrus fruits and broccoli.
- Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant and helps to reduce inflammation in our bodies. Nuts, seeds and avocados are good sources.
- Zinc is essential to preserving our immune system, from maintaining our skin barrier to making enzymes. This nutrient is found in beans, seeds, nuts, seafood and poultry.
- Omega-3 fatty acids help mitigate inflammation and are abundant in albacore tuna, salmon, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and sardines. Tips and recipes for immunity-strengthening foods
When selecting your foods, focus on what to eat and not so much on what not to eat:
- Eat whole, unprocessed foods the majority of the time
- Eat a wide variety of plant-based foods (whole grains, proteins [beans, lentils, nuts], vegetables, fruits, fats [olive oil, avocado])
- Try to eat the rainbow (each color provides different phytochemicals with different health benefits)
Immunity-strengthening recipes for families
Enjoy these fun, kid-friendly recipes with your family.
1 cup old-fashioned oats
2/3 cup toasted shredded coconut (unsweetened)
1/2 cup creamy almond butter (may substitute any nut butter)
1/2 cup ground flaxseed
1/2 cup dark chocolate chips
1/3 cup honey
1 tablespoon chia seeds
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Stir all ingredients together in large bowl until combined
- Cover and chill for 1-2 hours (helps the mixture to stick together)
- Roll into 1-inch balls
- Serve, refrigerate (up to 1 week) or freeze (up to 3 months)
Salmon Fried Rice
4 cups day old brown rice (may use freshly cooked rice- spread on baking sheet and cook for 10-15 min at 200⁰ F to dry out a bit)
2 cups cooked salmon, break into large chunks
3 eggs, beaten
3-4 tablespoons soy sauce or coconut aminos
1 tablespoon olive oil or coconut oil
½ medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1–2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 cup red, orange, or yellow bell pepper, diced
1 cup broccoli, cut into small florets
½ cup carrots, diced
½ cup frozen peas, thawed and drained
3 green onions, thinly sliced (include greens and whites)
- Heat oil in a large sauté pan or wok on medium-high heat. Add broccoli and sauté about 5 minutes until vegetables are slightly browned and soft; set aside in a bowl.
- Sauté onion, bell pepper and carrots for 5 minutes until slightly browned.
Lower heat to medium and add garlic, ginger, and the whites of the green onion, cook for one more minute.
- Increase to medium-high heat, add the beaten eggs and stir often until cooked.
- Add the peas, green parts of the green onions and rice. Stir in soy sauce and cook for another minute. Gently fold in the salmon and broccoli, cook for another 1-2 minutes.
Serve with additional soy sauce or coconut aminos, cilantro and/or siracha for additional spice.
Stuffed Sweet Potatoes with White Beans and Pesto
4 sweet potatoes
1 cup spinach, 1 cup basil
½ cup walnuts, toasted and cooled
4 cloves garlic, smashed
½ tsp kosher salt, adjust to taste
~6 Tablespoons olive oil (adjust for consistency)
¼ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 small lemon, zested and juiced
Fresh ground pepper
1 can (15 ounce) cannellini beans, drained, rinsed, and dried
2 tsp Thyme, fresh or dried
1 tablespoon white sesame seeds
1 small lemon, juiced
Walnuts, toasted and chopped
Crumbed feta cheese or shredded parmesan cheese
- Preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C). Lightly slash or prick the sweet potatoes several times with a sharp knife or fork; place on a baking sheet. Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the potatoes are fork tender (large potatoes may need 60-75 minutes).
- While potatoes are baking, make the pesto. Place spinach, basil, garlic, walnuts, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt in a food processor. Blend until a paste forms. Add parmesan, pulse to combine. Stream in olive oil while food processor running until consistency smooth.
Add additional salt, lemon, olive oil and pepper as needed.
- Heat skillet with olive oil. Add rinsed and dried white beans and let cook undisturbed for 3-5 minutes, flip beans and cook another 3-5 minutes.
Add sesame seeds, thyme, lemon juice and salt to taste; lower heat and cook another 2 minutes.
- Stuff sweet potatoes with pesto, beans and top with avocado, walnuts, tahini and/or cheese.
For more health and wellness resources from the pediatric experts at CHOC, sign up for the Kids Health newsletter.
How to prevent and treat respiratory illnesses this season
Unfortunately, many kids get infected with respiratory illnesses in the fall and winter seasons. CHOC experts highly encourage all eligible members of households to receive their annual flu shots. Other preventative measures like good hygiene and staying home when sick can help protect families from illness. The following articles and guides provide more information.
At CHOC, we specialize in providing a full continuum of pediatric nutrition services, including inpatient and outpatient services, depending on our patients’ needs.