This past Friday we did a workshop at the clinic on immune-boosting foods. It went over really well—though it was specially tailored to individuals living with HIV, most of the recommendations would be applicable for anyone interested in achieving and maintaining a healthy immune system. Just a heads-up, there’s a lot packed into this post, as I wanted to recap the highlights—there were a lot!
Until I began learning about the human body and its disease-fighting mechanisms, I’d always pictured The Immune System as some abstract thing. However, the majority of our body’s immune function (about 70-80 percent) takes place in the gut. In order to keep the immune system in top working order, we want to make sure we eat foods that keep the gut healthy by supporting good digestion and promoting the proliferation of the good bacteria that live there.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are thought to be beneficial to the host organism—aka, the human body. Foods rich in probiotics, such as yogurt and other fermented foods like sauerkraut and miso, are a great way to supply these “good” bacteria.
Prebiotics help stimulate the growth of these good bacteria. They exist as fibers in foods such as:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion gerens
- Raw oats
- Unrefined wheat and barley
Fiber has been shown in many studies to be very effective in not just maintaining healthy digestion but also in lowering risk for heart disease, diabetes, and maybe even cancer. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains are some of the fiber-rich foods recommended. This is a huge part of why plant-based diets continue to be associated with decreased risk of heart disease, overweight, cancer, and other ailments.
Selenium-rich foods such as Brazil nuts were mentioned because of selenium’s role as a cofactor in antioxidant enzyme systems. However, you really only need about one Brazil nut a day (seriously) to get your daily dose—even less if you take a multi vitamin.
Whey protein was mentioned for its immune-supporting globulins and the glutamine content, which supports a healthy bowel system. To be honest, I’m a bit split on whey protein because it’s dairy-based and may not be suitable for everyone, but I think it’s better than soy-based protein powders, which use highly processed, isolated soy protein.
Omega-3’s came up as well. Research has shown strong evidence for this fatty acid’s anti-inflammatory properties along with potential to prevent memory loss and Alzheimer’s and even to ward off depression, among other things. Research is being done on omega-3’s and eye health. In marine sources such as oily fish like salmon, seaweed, and algae, omega-3’s occur as EPA and DHA, but it also occurs in plants in the form of ALA, which is a precursor. So if you don’t like fish or seaweed, you can try:
- Pumpkin seeds (also high in zinc)
- Flax seeds or ground flax
- Chia seeds
- Canola oil
- Certain greens
We also discussed the various types of inflammatory foods and the anti-inflammatory foods and spices that have been shown to improve and prevent symptoms related to diabetes, arthritis heart disease, and others.
Some inflammatory foods that are best avoided or consumed sparingly include:
- White Flour
- Whole milk and whole-milk dairy products
- High-fat meats such as beef
Some anti-inflammatory foods and spices to try are:
- Oily fish and fish oil
- Flax seeds and flax oil
- Olive oil
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Sweet potatoes
- Dark leafy greens like spinach and kale
- Cocoa powder and chocolate with a 70% or higher cocoa content
- Whey protein
We went over a list of “superfoods,” which are so named because of their dense nutrient content and potential immune-boosting properties. On the list:
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked tomatoes (cooking releases the lycopene, which has been shown to lower prostate cancer risk)
- Pink grapefruit
- Green and white tea
- Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage
Near the end of the discussion, some research on coconut oil and its anti-microbial properties were touched on as well. A lot of studies in the 1990’s involving partially hydrogenated coconut oil got a lot of people turned off to this plant-based source of saturated fat, but more recent studies (and looking to cultures that have been using coconut oil for centuries) have revealed that there may be some real benefits to using coconut oil in cooking and even topically. Though it may be a little soon to be certain, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the lauric acid in coconut oil touted as the Next Big Thing.
We will see. This is the side of nutrition science I really like to nerd out on. It’s going to be hard, I’m afraid, when I’m doing my internship and don’t have the luxury of time to talk about this stuff, but I have a feeling the stuff I learn in my clinical rotations, seeing the little pieces that make up the big picture, will only get me more excited about the many ways in which diet can help improve overall health.