OPINION | Making small changes to your diet to can help get your immune system fighting fit

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We’ve all heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’, right? Well, there is certainly some truth to that! People are becoming more aware of the relationship between food and health, and National Nutrition Week highlights factors making healthy eating an everyday choice.

Now more than ever, while the world fights a pandemic, we should be doing everything we can to ensure we are healthy; and that we can fight off any infections heading our way. A good starting point to good health is to assess your diet. Find the weak points and see where you can correct these.

Remember that the better you look after YOUR body, the better that it can look after YOU!

Your diet directly affects your weight, which we know in turn affects many other bodily functions, and what you eat also impacts the body in other ways.

Things like energy levels; immunity; brain functioning and heart health; bone, muscle and joint health; as well as overall organ functioning - such as the liver, the kidneys, the skin - are all influenced by what we consume.

Sometimes the hardest part of ‘eating right’ is knowing how to.

We often think we are making smart food choices but may be choosing things that aren’t as ‘healthy’ as they seem. A common example is choosing fat-free alternatives, thinking that this must be better for us than the full-fat alternative (such as with some yoghurts), but these are often packed with sugars - not the better option.

Start by asking yourself nine questions to assess whether you are doing more wrong than right when it comes to your diet, and to help you spot the areas that could benefit from change.

  • Do you often eat processed foods such as crackers, crisps, processed meats like sausages and polony, and foods that contain hydrogenated oils? Not only are these notoriously low in nutrition, they are often high in trans-fats, which are damaging to your heart and your overall health. Trans fats are the fats that you should always try to avoid - they do no good for the body and are also often to blame for weight gain, high cholesterol and heart disease.
  • Do you drink fizzy drinks that are high in sugar? Remember that sugar doesn’t contain any nutrients that your body needs to be healthy and, in most cases, will only lead to weight gain and blood sugar fluctuations that can cause fatigue and cravings. A diet that is high in sugar can also lead to illnesses such as insulin resistance and diabetes.
  • Do you eat refined grains that are classified as High G.I - such as white bread, white pasta, white rice or potatoes? These foods have a much lower fibre content than Low G.I unrefined grains (such as oats, brown bread, brown rice and sweet potato) and won’t keep you feeling full or keep blood sugar levels stable. Your waistline also takes a knock from high G.I foods if consumed regularly.
  • Do you eat baked goods such as cakes, biscuits, doughnuts and pastries? These are often very high in sugar AND trans-fats - the double whammy. Very rarely will these do any good (other than possibly trigger a release of endorphins), but rather choose a better way to get this endorphin rush, such as through regular exercise.
  • Do you often eat desserts high in sugar such as ice-cream, chocolates and sweets? Remember that sugar also interferes with nutrient absorption, causing depletion and ultimately deficiency - both have negative effects on the body.
  • Are the condiments that you use high in sugar, such as salad dressings and certain sauces? If you are not sure, check the labels to look for sugar content. You will be surprised what you find! Even tomato sauce contains sugar - who knew? Not all foods containing sugar are sweet!!
  • Do you drink alcohol regularly? Excessive alcohol consumption is harmful to the liver and supresses your immune system by destroying nutrients, making it harder to fight off infection. It also affects the liver, kidneys and skin (to name a few) - taking a toll on your body.
  • Do you deep fry your food or purchase foods that have been deep fried (such as certain takeaways)? These can contain trans-fats and sugars; they are most often processed and offer little nutrient value to your body. When consumed in excess, these can often lead to weight gain and obesity.
  • Do you smoke? Smoking depletes your body’s vitamin C so imagine how difficult it is for your immune system to stay healthy when it lacks the vitamin it uses to fight off infection. We also know how harmful smoking is to your lungs and the great risk it causes for cancer. There is no better time than the present TO STOP SMOKING!

If you were answering yes to most of these questions, your diet needs some change! Don’t worry - it is never too late to start!

Now answer some questions that can assess how well you are doing with some of the important factors in a healthy diet. These will ensure that your body keeps healthy and your immune system remains strong:

  • Do you drink at least 2l of water a day? Water is so beneficial for the body - it helps eliminate toxins, it assists the liver to function optimally, aids digestion, boosts metabolism, helps your immune system - you name it!
  • Do you eat 4-5 portions of fresh fruits and vegetables per day? This one almost doesn’t need an explanation, right? These are the foods that are packed with the nutrients we need to survive and to function optimally.
  • Do you make sure that you are eating enough antioxidant rich foods such as berries, certain nuts and dark leafy greens? Antioxidants play an important role, as they can prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals.
  • Do you focus on including immune boosting foods in your diet, such as those high in Vitamin C and Zinc? Some examples of these are citrus fruits (like oranges and grapefruits), capsicum (red pepper), broccoli, spinach, guava, seafood, lean red meat, whole-grain cereals and pumpkin seeds.
  • Do you eat whole grains that are high in fibre and low in G.I? Look for healthy grains such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oats, quinoa, buckwheat and bulgur, to include in your diet. A healthy gut can lead to good immunity and help many other bodily functions too.
  • Do you take a multivitamin each day? It’s a good idea to try and find a multivitamin within your budget that offers the full scope of daily nutrients in one small dose. This is especially important if you struggle to eat the foods that contain these nutrients and if you are not consuming the optimal amounts.
  • Do you control or monitor your caffeine intake? Too much caffeine can be harmful and can have several negative effects on the body. It does, however, have a positive effect on alertness and energy levels and so it is all about moderation with this one.
  • Do you do at least 20 minutes of exercise daily? Exercise is important for good mental and physical health, not only for weight management, joint support and cardiovascular care, but for immunity as well.

Although these points may seem simple, each of them is important for you to function optimally. Each has a purpose in the human body that contributes to your health and wellbeing. Something as simple as drinking two litres of water a day can make the world of difference to your overall health.

Start by making small improvements today! In many ways, food can either be your medicine or it can be the cause of your illness, so it is important to make sure that you are eating the right foods to make sure you are looking after yourself!

*Ashley Butler Lobb is national nutrition & wellness expert at Dis-Chem

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