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Foods You Should Stock Your Kitchen With to Support Your Immune System

COVID-19 has taken a grip on the world. On Wednesday, the World Health Organization announced we officially have a pandemic. Thursday, we learned that Broadway is suspending all shows for a month—as are many other dance organizations. Around the country, we see responses to the coronavirus.

It's led many people to ask what foods they can eat to rev up their immune system.


The immune system is complicated and relies on a host of nutrients to function optimally. Fortunately, stocking your pantry and fridge with minimally-processed, whole foods that support wellness is affordable and accessible.

Vitamin A

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Vitamin A protects the epithelium and mucus integrity of the body, which is a first-line defense against infection.

Good sources of vitamin A that have a long shelf life include carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and winter squash. Dark leafy greens like kale, collards and turnip greens are another good choice, but you'll need to use them within a few days.

Since it's a fat-soluble vitamin, it's best to eat foods rich in vitamin A along with healthy fats like avocado, olives, nuts, seeds, olive oil, coconut oil or grass-fed butter.

  • Carrots can be steamed, roasted or eaten raw. Carrot sticks paired with hummus is an easy snack that you can enjoy at home or at the studio.
  • Sweet potatoes can be served raw, baked or roasted. I like to slice a sweet potato into medallions, drizzle with a bit of oil, and season with salt and pepper before roasting in a 400-degree oven until toasty.
  • Canned pumpkin puree can be added to muffins or other baked goods to enjoy for breakfast or as a snack. Pumpkin is delicious in savory recipes, too.

Need a recipe to use some of that canned pumpkin you have left over from the fall? This one is a favorite with my clients and can be modified for vegan or vegetarian diets.

Vitamin C

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The body relies on vitamin C to launch an effective immune response. Since it's also necessary to build collagen and a number of hormones, it's important to eat foods rich in vitamin C daily. Citrus fruits, broccoli, strawberries and potatoes are all rich sources of vitamin C.

Oranges, grapefruit and tangerines are known as rich sources of vitamin C. What you may not know is that they also contain a host of bioflavonoids that support health, including rutin. Studies show that rutin has the potential for increasing immune activity.

I recommend dancers eat the whole fruit rather than opt for citrus juices. The fiber in the flesh feeds friendly bacteria in your gut that support your immune system. The pith (the spongy white part of the peel) is a source of bioflavonoids, a rich source of fiber, and can have as much vitamin C as the flesh.

Most citrus fruits can be stored at room temperature, or in a refrigerator for up to three weeks. Mandarins and tangerines are best refrigerated.

Fresh isn't always best. Broccoli and strawberries both have a short shelf-life. Their frozen counterparts offer nutritious, cost-effective options. Commercially frozen produce will keep safely in the freezer anywhere from three to 12 months.

  • Broccoli can be served as a side or incorporated into stir-fries.
  • Frozen strawberries can be eaten on their own or blended into smoothies for a quick breakfast.

Vitamin D

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There have been multiple studies that report low vitamin D levels are associated with increased risk of infection. The good news is we can produce our own vitamin D with adequate sun exposure. The bad news is most people don't get adequate sun exposure.

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, typically found in foods that are natural fat sources. Shelf-stable options include fatty fish like canned tuna, canned mackerel and canned salmon. It's interesting to note that vitamin D levels in animal products can vary greatly depending on the animal's sun exposure.

Egg yolks are a source of vitamin D, especially when they come from hens that are allowed to spend their days foraging in the sun. Enjoy the whole egg, not just the yolk, scrambled, fried or in baked goods.

  • Hard boiled eggs are easy to pack for meals away from home or can be sliced and added to salads or soups for an extra source of vitamin D, protein, and other essential nutrients.
  • Eggs can last three to five weeks in the fridge.

Whole-milk dairy products are another natural source of vitamin D. Fortified cereals, milk alternatives and orange juice are vegetarian options.

Selenium

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Selenium is an essential mineral that plays a crucial role in immune responses. Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of selenium and are shelf-stable. Brazil nuts are so rich in selenium, it's recommended to limit intake to just a couple nuts a day to prevent toxicity. Alternately, you can enjoy one ounce (six to eight nuts) a couple times a week.

Other shelf-stable sources of selenium include enriched pasta, whole grain cereals, oatmeal, brown rice and sunflower seeds.

  • Brown rice takes longer to cook than white rice, so you may consider making a double batch and freezing the extras for later. You can keep cooked rice in the freezer for up to a month.
  • Brown rice can be added to salads, wraps or soups. It can even be served for breakfast topped with a fried egg for a savory version, or a bit of pure maple syrup for a sweet start to the day.

Zinc

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Zinc affects multiple aspects of the immune system. It's found in legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Though these foods are shelf-stable, it's harder for the body to access zinc from them due to a plant compound called phytic acid.

  • Soaking legumes overnight can reduce phytate content.
  • Sprouting seeds, grains and legumes causes phytate degradation.

Red meat is an excellent source of zinc that's readily available to the body, but not shelf-stable. Consider freezing a bit of meat to have available as a source of zinc and other nutrients.

  • Just 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of raw ground beef provide 44 percent of your recommended zinc requirement.
  • Pork, lamb and shellfish are other good sources of zinc.

Meat should be an accent to meals rather than a centerpiece. Ground beef can be cooked in advance and added to soups or sauces which can be eaten now or frozen for later. If you didn't grab that chili recipe earlier, here it is. Each serving provides 55 percent of the recommended daily intake for zinc and leftovers can be frozen for up to two months.

Dark chocolate is a sweet treat with benefits. A 100-gram (3.5 ounce) bar provides 30 percent of the daily value for zinc.

  • Choose chocolate that is 70-85 percent cacao.
  • Consider adding dark chocolate chips to muffins or trail mix in place of other sweet add-ins.

Other Health-Supporting Foods

Not all health benefits come from vitamins and minerals. Plants offer thousands of compounds called phytochemicals that are proving to be beneficial to health and may even have medicinal properties. Here are a few honorable mentions that I recommend adding to your shelf-stable supplies.

Garlic

Though it's not a cure-all, this bulb commonly found in many world cuisines adds flavor and health benefits to your meals. Research indicates that garlic may increase the immune system's natural killer cells, reduce inflammation and can decrease certain pathogens. Garlic can be enjoyed either cooked or raw.

Grape Juice

Generally speaking, I recommend eating the whole fruit (or vegetable) rather than drinking the juice. I make an exception for grape juice. Not only is it shelf-stable, drinking grape juice regularly has been shown to benefit immunity.

Ginger

Ginger can be used in sweet or savory dishes. A strong cup of ginger tea can relieve a congested cough or warm you up should you get chills from a fever. Ginger has been shown to reduce inflammatory pain.

Ginger Tea:

  1. Grate or finely mince one tablespoon of fresh ginger and place in a cup.
  2. Pour one cup of boiling water into the mug. Let it steep for 15 minutes.
  3. Sweeten with honey, if desired.

Pro-Tips

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before preparing or eating any food.
  • Wash the all produce before cutting or peeling to avoid introducing germs to the flesh.
  • Choose citrus fruits that feel heavy for their size, which is a good indicator of juiciness. Don't throw away the peel before eating the pith.
  • When buying root vegetables, choose those that have the greens still attached when possible. Carrot, beet and radish greens are all edible and great sources of nutrition. Remove the greens before storing to maximize shelf-life.
  • Remember to include freezer items, especially produce, as part of your well-stocked kitchen.
  • When it comes to juice, choose grape juice for immune support.
  • Keep a supply of herbs and spices on hand to flavor foods and bolster nutrition.

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