How healthy eating can help boost the immune system

How does what you eat affect your chances of fighting infection such as the coronavirus? A Virginia Tech professor explains how diet can make a difference.

How does what you eat affect your chances of fighting viruses such as the coronavirus? A Virginia Tech professor detailed how diet can make a difference.

“I think the biggest mistake people are making is (thinking) there is nothing they can do beyond social isolation to defend themselves against infections,” said Carlin Rafie, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a registered dietitian.

Rafie has expertise in nutrition and dietetics, focused on health education of Virginia residents through the Virginia Cooperative Extension.

In addition to social distancing and wearing a mask, there are ways people can boost their personal defense system while waiting to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Rafie said bodies are highly capable of managing disease and defending against disease. One way to start is by eating more fruits and vegetables.

“The dietary recommendations recommends about two cups of fruits a day and three cups of vegetables a day. But only one out of 10 Americans actually consume that amount,” Rafie said.

Rafie believes that by increasing the number of servings of fruits and vegetables, the risk for disease can be decreased and health may be improved.

Fruits and vegetables high in vitamins A and C boost the immune system.

“Vitamin A plays a really important role in the integrity of our skin and digestive tract, the epithelial tissue — that’s where a lot of infection gets in — including respiratory tissue,” Rafie said. “Respiratory is kind of an epithelial tissue.”

So which vegetables should you choose?

“They should be the ones you like, otherwise you’re not going to eat them,” she said.

Think also in terms of varieties of colors and forms and vegetables, fresh, cooked, canned and frozen.

“So that you consume them in sufficient quantities and variety,” Rafie said.

It’s not just fruits and vegetables that can help your body fight off disease, but a dose of dairy can also help, specifically dairy fortified with vitamin D.

“Vitamin D plays an important role for balancing immune response in the immune system,” Rafie said.

Don’t do dairy? Rafie said you can look for alternative milk products or even orange juice fortified with vitamin D.

Rafie also recommends fermented foods with live active cultures, such as yogurt or kombucha, which are good for your digestive system and intestinal tract.

“Having a really healthy intestinal tract and digestive system is really important to immune function,” Rafie said.

“Many people don’t associate the two, but 70-80{50531db320f8e8a316d79d6a285e47c71b6e4f6739df32858cb86474d7e720e9} of immune system lies in our GI tract. You need a healthy microbiome in the digestive tract, which fermented yogurt and such can give,” Rafie said.

Other possibilities are sauerkraut that hasn’t been pasteurized, kimchi and buttermilk.

But overall, Rafie said it is important to watch how much you are eating, and keep an eye on the scale.

“Being obese has lots of health consequences. It also has consequences on your immune function,” Rafie said.

Before the pandemic, many had regular routines that kept them eating healthy and exercising. While that doesn’t always work with pandemic restrictions, Rafie said it’s time to create a new normal and get back into healthy habits.

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