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Foods That Punch up Immunity

To keep the immune system healthy, keep your gut flora healthy.

A sturdy immune system is important for warding off the barrage of viruses and bacteria that we face everyday. To keep yours in top shape, go with your gut.

“The immune system is lined up all along our [gastrointestinal] tract,” said Dr. Zhaoping Li, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. Dendritic cells along the GI lining regulate the body’s immune function, and bacteria inside the gut work closely with those cells to stimulate immune response to invaders.

Eat Your Veggies

“When we eat a plant-based diet, we feed the bacteria inside the gut,” said Li, who recommends making vegetables a major part of at least two of every three meals. Fresh vegetables contain prebiotics (fibrous substances that directly stimulate the growth of good bacteria), vitamins and minerals.

Apply Heat

“Don’t just eat salads,” Li said. Some vegetables release more of their vital nutrients when cooked.

Go Homemade

Avoid packaged foods, which generally contain preservatives that compromise gut health. “The food with the preservatives is killing all the bacteria,” Li said.

Embrace Variety

Before we started flying and trucking in food from around the world, people had to eat what was available locally and in season, which is what Li says is best for our bodies. Binging on a few super foods isn’t the way to good health. “That’s a lazy way out,” said Li. “We all want that, but it’s not the best way.”

Skip the Supplements

Probiotics are live bacteria that are beneficial to the immune system. They are found in foods such as yogurt, and are also available as supplements. But Li says these generally contain just one or two bacterial strains – while your gut has 500.

Discover more tips for healthy living. 

Comments
  • Joseph V.

    Can you provide more details? Which vegetables are best for this season? Which are best when cooked vs. raw? How can we find out what food is local and in season?

    • Maggie M.

      Hi Joseph! Here are a couple sites to help answer your questions on seasonality of vegetables and cooked veggies versus raw. It is hard to say which farmer’s markets are still open during the pandemic for availability.
      Seasonal foods
      cooked vs raw
      Hope this helps! Thank you for your comment – MM

  • Jeanne N.

    While I agree with Dr. Li’s aspirational advice, we have to be practical. The lives of average Americans are busy and healthy food is expensive.

    And regarding the value of cooking some vegetables, there is a bit more to this — it is the manner in which some veggies, such as celery, are cooked that make them more nutritious. So some research is needed.

    Other health and dietary experts believe that while we should not depend 100% on probiotic supplements, some can actually help, especially if you have Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic diarrhea, rheumatoid arthritis, etc. Moreover, some people do not like yogurt and other foods that contain probiotics naturally, so supplements might help them.

    As for variety, that’s a lovely idea but not always possible. And it is not “lazy” to eat a healthy but limited diet. Our ancestors, those animals from which humans descended, did not fly around the world — they ate the foods that grew in their habitat and flourished. The idea is to eat as healthy as we can, keeping an open mind but resist being pressured by the opinions – and tastes — of others.

    Finally, packaged foods do contain preservatives that can sabotage our health, but with busy schedules sometimes we cannot always “go homemade.” We should keep “packaged” foods to a minimum, but, again, perhaps balancing the digestive system by taking a probiotic supplement makes sense.

    The important thing is to understand the whole picture, not just pieces, as of a jigsaw puzzle, when managing our diets and health.

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