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Published on January 22, 2021

Balance of nutrients, exercise can strengthen body's immune system

By Beth Cecil, Mind and Body, Messenger-Inquirer

“Feed a fever, starve a cold,” or is it “Starve a fever, feed a cold?” I can never remember how this old saying goes.

One thing I am certain about though is that starving is never the answer. In fact, your immune system will likely function much better when you eat, especially when following a well-balanced diet.

As coronavirus cases continue to surge, many of us would do just about anything to avoid getting it. We are reminded regularly that wearing a mask, social distancing, good handwashing and staying safe at home is key to avoid getting sick until enough of our population is vaccinated.

But your diet just might play a role in keeping your immune system stronger or reducing the risk of serious complications of an illness.

It is important to mention that while many foods and products on the store shelves claim immune-boosting properties, there is no magic bullet or special dietary supplement that will protect you from COVID-19, colds or the flu.

However, eating a nutrient rich, healthy and balanced diet every day, over time, may indeed offer great protection against some illnesses or get you feeling better faster if you do get sick. And while there is not one superfood, there are certain nutrients that may play a role in boosting the body’s immune function and can easily be included in your long-term healthy eating plan.

Vitamin C immediately comes to my mind when I think about immune function. As an antioxidant, Vitamin C can help protect cells from damage and plays a role in supporting the skins barrier against pathogens. Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamin C, specifically citrus fruits, peppers, broccoli, berries and tomatoes.

Milk really does do a body good in regards to Vitamin D. This vitamin, found in dairy products, fatty fish, fortified cereals and of course sunlight, has gained even more attention lately in regards to COVID-19.

Studies have shown people with Vitamin D deficiency are more likely to get COVID and experience more severe symptoms of the disease. Vitamin D supplementation may be recommended if you don’t get enough through your diet. Speak to your healthcare provider for more guidance.

Protein plays many roles in our body’s immune function by helping with the development of white blood cells, antibodies and other disease fighting compounds. Protein is essential for disease recovery as well. Meet your daily protein needs with a variety of lean cuts of meat and poultry, fish, low-fat dairy, dried beans, nuts and soy-based foods.

Zinc is necessary for our body’s immune system to work properly and might even help reduce the severity of illnesses such as COVID-19. Zinc can be found in oysters, crab, meat, dried beans, seeds, fortified cereals and oatmeal.

The roles these nutrients play in immunity are an example of just how vital good nutrition is to our bodies. But these nutrients cannot work alone. Place your focus on an overall healthy diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods, low-fat dairy products and lean meats, poultry and fish. Also, don’t forget to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated, especially when you are ill.

Finally, remember the importance of regular exercise, adequate sleep and stress management to keep your immune system strong.

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans have just been released and will provide scientific guidance for all Americans to “make every bite count.” Visit www.dietaryguidelines.gov for more information.

If you have other questions or concerns about your diet, reach out to your healthcare provider about a consult with a registered dietitian.

Beth Cecil, RDN, LD, is a registered dietitian and the Manager of Community Wellness for Owensboro Health. She has been practicing at a dietitian for 24 years and has spent the past 13 years working in wellness, health promotion and community education with Owensboro Health. Beth is passionate about wellness and nutrition and works hard to promote Owensboro Health’s mission to improve the health of our community.

About Owensboro Health

Owensboro Health is a nonprofit health system with a mission to heal the sick and to improve the health of the communities it serves in Kentucky and Indiana. The system includes Owensboro Health Regional Hospital, nationally recognized for design, architecture and engineering; Owensboro Health Muhlenberg Community Hospital; Owensboro Health Twin Lakes Medical Center; the Owensboro Health Medical Group comprised of over 200 providers at more than 20 locations; three outpatient Healthplex facilities, a certified medical fitness facility, the Healthpark; a surgical weight loss center and program, and the Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center.

On average each year, we have 16,000 inpatient admissions, deliver 2,000 babies and provide the region’s only Level III NICU. Owensboro Health physicians perform nearly 24,000 surgical procedures, including nearly 200 open-heart surgeries. Our physicians and staff have 70,000 Emergency Department visits, more than a million outpatient visits annually. Visit our home page for more information.