With the arrival of cold and flu season, you may be tempted to turn to immune-boosting supplements that you hope will save you from a sore throat, runny nose, body aches and the other energy-sapping side effects of the year-end bug.
Unfortunately, most immune-boosting supplements are nothing more than a waste of money: little clinical efficacy has been shown for Vitamin C in the prevention of the common cold, save in extremely active individuals, for whom Vitamin C may offer more protection.
While cold-fighting supplements won’t do much to bolster your immune system, what you eat plays a large role in immune health. The foods and beverages you consume every day will have a much larger role in immune health than many immune supplements, which often offer little more than a placebo effect.
Certain foods and beverages are highly beneficial for – or highly detrimental to – immune health.
If you’re hoping to prevent a cold or the flu this season (and really, who isn’t?) here are a few foods you should focus on – and a few you should skip.
Immune busters: sugar, fruit juice, alcohol
While it’s easy to assume your sugar consumption is within the healthy recommended range, most Guyanese consume far more sugar than we should. Women and children should consume no more than 25 grammes of sugar each day and men no more than 36 grammes and yet the average local currently consumes more than 80 grammes a day.
Even if you’re not consciously snacking on sweet treats and sugary beverages, you’re likely consuming more than you think, thanks to hidden sugar in products like bread, sauces, condiments, and salad dressings. Remember that even foods that seem healthy can contain added sugars.
Moreover, even foods high in naturally-occurring sugars (like fruit juice) can be problematic when consumed regularly.
Foods like no sugar added orange juice (which, ironically, is commonly believed to be beneficial for immune health) contain as much sugar as ‘sweet drinks’ or other sugar-added beverages and while the sugar in fruit juices is largely natural, its effects on blood sugar and immune health are similar.
Whenever you consume fruit, always do so in its whole form – doing so will help control blood sugar response, reduce inflammation and improve immune health, rather than reduce it.
As for fruit juice of the fermented variety? Alcohol has a mild anti-inflammatory effect when consumed in the acceptable, moderate quantity (no more than 1 drink/day for women, 2 drinks/day for men), but becomes inflammation-producing in excess of the aforementioned limits.
During this time of the year (even though it’s Christmas), be especially careful with regard to alcohol consumption, holiday cocktail parties and festive dinners are tempting environments for over imbibing, leaving you tipsy, tired, and susceptible to a bug.
Immune boosters: lean proteins, seafood, yogurt, veggies
During the cold and flu season, focus on healthy, lean proteins. Most Guyanese tend to consume diets overly high in carbohydrates: we love our rice, roti, bread, chowmein, macaroni, chips, beverages, and other high-starchy items which can cause large fluctuations in blood sugar, increasing cellular inflammation and reducing immunity to invading viruses. Moreover, these items tend to crowd out space for dietary proteins.
When choosing meat, always favour leaner varieties when possible: skinless chicken breasts and thighs, pork tenderloin, skinless turkey breast, beef sirloin, beef tenderloin, and lean ground meats are all good options. Seafood remains disappointingly under-consumed especially in the city, often stemming from lack of habit more than lack of enjoyment.
Rather than focusing on a regular rotation of chicken and beef, vary your proteins to include a mixture of chicken, pork, beef, and seafood: salmon is a great choice, especially given its high Vitamin D content.
Finally, the foods we all know we should be eating more of is veggies. While fruit consumption is generally adequate for many individuals, vegetable consumption traditionally drops this time of year. However, during cold and flu season, vegetables are potent sources of vitamins and minerals.