It’s often said that prevention is the best medicine. For the last eight years, COMO Group Nutritionist Eve Persak has ensured the health-giving COMO Shambhala Cuisine has maintained a rigorous scientific focus on how to boost our immune systems. We catch up with Eve as she shares her top tips on staying well with a thoughtful diet.
Tell us one quick way we can support our immunity?
Stay hydrated. While there isn’t any need to flood the body with fluids, making sure you’re getting enough clear liquids each day – be it hot herbal teas, water, or even coconut water – can be a big help. When the body gets dehydrated, all systems – including the immune system – operate less effectively. At the same time, external protective barriers like the sinus passages and airways need moisture to catch and clear harmful debris and pathogens.
Protein, carbohydrates or fats: which most benefits our immune system?
Protein. Immune cells rely heavily on protein to repair and rebuild tissues, as well as to ward off infection. Eating enough protein therefore just makes good sense, both preventatively and reactively. The good news is most people are getting enough protein in their diets already. If that’s the case for you, then start thinking about how to improve the way you consume protein.
For instance, rather than bundling all of your protein into one meal, consider including a little bit of protein at each eating opportunity. This paced pattern can help the body use the protein more efficiently. Also make sure your proteins are ‘complete’, meaning they contain ample amounts of all the ‘essential’ amino acids.
For omnivores, this is slightly easier as animal proteins (eggs, fish, dairy etc.) naturally contain all essential amino acids. For those with a plant-based diet, try to include foods like quinoa, sprouted wholegrain products, buckwheat, amaranth, and hemp and chia seeds. These foods offer a diverse range of these amino acids, too.
Vitamins and minerals: how important are they?
Very. There are three that I recommend consuming as a priority when it comes to immunity: zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D. All three play a role in how – or how well – our system responds to invaders. And all three can be derived from your normal diet.
Zinc, for instance, is found in seafood, as well as nuts and seeds — especially sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds. While it can also be found in immune focused supplement formulations, excess zinc (i.e. taking amounts far greater than the % daily requirement) can actually suppress the immune system.
Vitamin C abounds in fresh fruits and vegetables, like lemons, oranges, tomatoes, sweet pepper and leafy greens. For Vitamin D, your skin can actually manufacture it simply by being exposed to the sun, so just getting outside can do you a lot of good. It’s also found in food like fish, egg yolks and mushrooms.
Are there any immune-boosting ‘superfoods’ we should be eating?
It’s pretty incredible when modern science and Mother Nature come together. There’s a wealth of research demonstrating the immune-supporting effects that certain antioxidants and phytochemicals have in various plant-based foods. Some compounds enhance the function of specific immune cells, while others regulate the overall immune response. A few of my favourites include virgin, cold-pressed oils — like olive and coconut — and fresh roots, herbs and spices, like oregano, garlic, onion, parsley, turmeric and ginger.
What should we be avoiding?
Now is a good time to be careful about blood sugar control. Sugars found in desserts, sweeteners and sugary beverages, as well refined grains like white rice and white flour products (breads, noodles and crackers) can tamper with immune function. They not only ‘feed’ pathogenic bacteria and viruses that challenge the immune system, but also suppress immune cells working to protect the body.
Try to keep these foods to a minimum. Instead opt for naturally-sweet fresh fruits and whole grains, which offer vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibres that their more processed peers don’t.
Tell us one final tip to help us keep well?
Don’t overlook the gut. The GI tract is considered the ‘home’ of the immune system. Making sure your digestive system has a robust and beneficial microbial balance can bolster the body’s overall immune response. Incorporating probiotic-rich foods – like cultured or fermented foods such as yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and miso – help bring in good bacteria. Once they’ve arrived, filling up on fibres from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds will help them settle in and thrive.
COMO’s inaugural cookbook, The Pleasures of Eating Well, which features recipes from the COMO Shambhala kitchen, shares Eve’s top tips on staying well with a thoughtful diet.