Fuel up on food to fight winter sickness

If the glass is half full, it’s holiday season, and if the glass is half empty, it’s cold and flu season. Either way, be careful about what you put in that glass — and on your plate — because healthy eating can carry you through the dark, snowy months.
While Maine gardens are rock solid and dormant, people eat less fresh vegetables and fruits — but they’re the basis of a healthy diet.
“Put a rainbow on your plate,” said registered dietitian Kate Yerxa of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “We think it’s harder to do here in Maine in the winter time, but for a variety, shop the perimeter of the grocery store — that’s where you’re going to find more of the whole foods.”
She suggests a diet of variety: fruits, vegetables, dried beans, nuts, whole grains and lean cuts of meat.
“Foods that will help you ward off an infection like the common cold or flu are foods that contain antioxidants,” said Yerxa. “Fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants, but they also come from many other types of foods such as whole grains and meats.”
Antioxidants can slow down, prevent or repair damage in your body’s cells. They lower your risk for infection, but also improve long-term health, fortifying the body against chronic diseases such as cancer.
The primary antioxidants are beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, zinc and selenium, said Yerxa.
“Just by remembering there is a variety of food, you’ll have all the bases covered,” she said.
Fermented food with live cultures such as sauerkraut and some yogurts boost the immune system by increasing antibodies that fight infectious diseases, said Joan Cookson of the Natural Living Center in Bangor.
To benefit most from vitamin-packed food, preparation is important. While you don’t have to eat everything raw, overcooking food destroys vitamins and enzymes, said Cookson.
Even if you maintain a healthy diet, sometimes it’s impossible to avoid catching a cold. But when you’re sitting on the couch with a box of tissues beside you, eating certain foods can speed up the healing process.
“I don’t think there’s a magic food that’s going to cure a cold,” Yerxa said. “It’s really how you feel about the foods that you’re eating. We do have some comfort foods, and maybe by adding some of the healthy foods into the comfort foods, you can reap the benefits there.”
Add vegetables to your average chicken noodle soup. If you want to try something new, visit your local natural food store and purchase a few slices of dried astragalus root to add to your soup. Astragalus root stimulates the immune system, according to Cookson. Research shows that it increases the number of white blood cells to fight infection.
The dark purple elderberry is said to reduce severity of flu symptoms and possesses anti-inflammatory and immune stimulating properties. Unfortunately, they taste bitter and sour. But a few dried elderberries brewed with a tea bag are an easy, healthy addition to tea, said Cookson.
Honey and lemon tea and licorice tea can help sooth the throat, while mint tea can calm an upset stomach. Green and black tea are loaded with disease-fighting polyphenols and flavonoids, antioxidants that seek out cell-damaging radicals and destroy them, said Kate Boehmer of Hampden Natural Foods.
Garlic offers several antioxidants that battle immune system invaders. Boehmer’s cooking tip: peel, chop and let the garlic sit for 15 to 20 minutes before cooking to activate immune-boosting enzymes.
“Dairy milk and cheeses are mucus-forming, so if you have a cough, hold off for a while,” said Elaine Feichtinger, supplement manager of the Natural Living Center in Bangor.
“When you’re sick, my biggest thing would be no processed foods,” said Destiny Winters, cook at the Natural Living Center in Bangor. “Just very clean, straight-up whole foods.”
Processed foods and fast food meals often have added salt, fat or sugar to lengthen shelf life and lack the nutrients that whole, fresh foods contain.
Regardless of whether you seep soothing teas or experiment with roots and herbs, fruits and vegetables are the top immune boosters. Eat as if your garden is still alive and well.

Foods with Antioxidants

  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits such as oranges and grapefruit, red pepper, tomatoes, strawberries and cantaloupe.
  • Vitamin E: fortified cereals, broccoli, nuts and avocado.
  • Beta-carotene: carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach and winter squash.
  • Zinc: nuts, dried beans, eggs, whole grains, meat and dairy products.
  • Selenium: Brazil nuts, shiitake mushrooms, tuna and some fortified breads and grain products.

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