Eating a healthy and balanced diet is key to building your immune system, so a major global pandemic is probably a good time to re-evaluate your diet. We all know the 2 fruit & 5 vegetable rule, and to drink plenty of water, but what foods deliver the nutrients we need to build immunity?
We chatted with Dr Tasmiah Masih, an Accredited Practicing Dietician/Nutritionist, and University of Western Australia alumni, about what we should be including in our diets to boost our immune system and improve our health. Here are a few foods to include:
Oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel and sardines are a rich source of Zinc, Iron and vitamin A and B6, making them an important source of nutrients.
Vitamin A helps maintain the skin’s and gut’s cells. In addition to being your first barrier to infection, your skin helps produce the cells that fend off infection, virus and disease. B6 Vitamin plays a big part in our body’s first response when we come into contact with bacteria. Zinc strengthens our skin cells and iron directly boosts the immune system.
Importantly, Dr Masih tells us that eating oily fish is actually better than taking fish oil supplements, as fish likely has other properties that synergistically boost the beneficial aspects of omega-3-fats.
Healthy Gut Foods
“70% of our immune system is in our gut,” says Dr Masih. It’s important we keep our gut healthy by keeping our gut bacteria happy, and include foods that are high in fibre such as wholegrains, and regularly eat probiotic or Greek yoghurt, and fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut.
Dairy products, as well as eggs, also contain the essential B12 vitamin, which plays a pivotal role in building up our immune system. Vitamin B12 can assist in upping our white blood cell count, which is integral in fighting off illness.
Consuming dairy from local farms reduces your risk further. As WA has stringent laws on biosecurity, we are not exposed to diseases from foods prevalent in other parts of the country and overseas. Locally sourced dairy products such as milk are the most protected. Also, there are fewer hands from grass to glass and lower food miles, so the environmental impact is reduced.
Stop the press! Turns out bread is actually good for you. Not that processed, sugary, white stuff, but the unrefined, seeded, wholegrain bread that’s way yummier anyway.
“30% of our total energy amongst Australians is derived from discretionary foods… these are highly processed, high in fat, refined sugar and high in energy [calories]” says Dr Masih, who recommended we instead incorporate unprocessed wholegrain, nuts, seeds, fruit, vegetables, and legumes into our diet.
For your interest, we found a bakery that uses WA sourced grain AND mills its own flour. Check it out here
Colourful Fruit and Vegetables, including Herbs and Spices
Vegetables are an essential ingredient for fighting off viruses. Leafy green vegetables contain a triple treat of Vitamin A, B6 and E and are potent antioxidants, helping to maintain skin health and assist in the body’s front-line defence against bacteria.
Dr Masih advised that when choosing produce, it’s best to “select a wide variety of fruit and veg that is as deep in colour as possible [such as red cabbage, beetroot, and berries]. These strong colours reflect a high level of phytochemicals, which the plants use to fight off pathogens, and that protective element is transferred to us.” For humans, these same phytochemicals help our bodies fight cancer, heart disease and obesity.
Although sometimes overlooked when it comes to nutrition, Dr Masih recommended that we do not neglect herbs and spices in our diets. It’s best to switch up your herbs and spices daily and “embrace diversity in food”.
Vegetables are another valuable source of protein with multiple benefits.
“I would recommend an increase in vegetarian protein, such as legumes, nuts and seeds. Australians tend to not eat enough of these, and the benefit of this is that you get all the other good stuff [apart from protein] from it, such as the fibre, vitamins, mineral, but also the plant-derived phytochemicals”, Dr Masih continues, “it’s best for us to eat a vegetarian meal at least a couple of times a week.”
Dr Masih stressed that in an age where we want a blanket answer for health, the most important thing to remember is to eat a balanced diet.
“We should embrace diversity in food,” she says, “we just need to be balanced. That could mean that if one day you have a banana, the next day, have [a] different [fruit], or if you have parsley in your meal one night, try a different herb the next day.”