Foods are foundational for health and wellbeing. As hippocrates once said, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Although this quote was said thousands of years ago, research today reveals that what you choose to eat has profound effects on your overall health. We know that dietary habits influence disease risk. While some foods may trigger chronic health conditions, others offer strong medicinal and protective qualities.
A 2021 report showed that 60% of children's calories are now from Ultra Processed Foods (UPFs). This stat honestly blows my mind. How did we get here? If we know food is medicine, why are we feeding our kids 60% crap?
A study published in Nutrition Journal looked at the impact the Western diet and lifestyle has on people’s immune function. It found that processed and fast food may lead to health problems such as increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease. And it doesn’t end there. Another study found that children ages 3 - 5 who consumed more UPFs had poorer locomotor skills than children who consumed less of these foods. It also showed lower cardiovascular fitness in 12- to 15-year-olds who consumed more ultra processed foods. Not to mention that processed foods are well known to cause obesity and weight problems in children and adults alike.
Ultra Processed foods are categorized in this study as including packaged snacks, breakfast cereals, candies, soda, sweetened juices and yogurts, canned soups and prepared foods like pizza, hotdogs, burgers and chicken nuggets. Vegetable oils, such as soy, corn and canola (just to name a few) have also been linked with increased inflammation in the body, increased weight gain and poorer health. Studies have also shown spikes in sugar intake suppress your immune system. Therefore, a diet high in sugars can also reduce the body’s ability to ward off cold and flu.
Another important piece of information to note, is that children’s tastes and eating habits are often carried into adulthood. And so, if you lay the groundwork for health eating choices in childhood, it can help set the child up for success later in life.
So, if we know UPF’s, vegetable oils and sugars weaken the immune system, what foods help to boost and strengthen the immune system?
First and foremost, a diet rich in probiotics can help to improve nutrient absorption, reduce inflammation and enhance the immune system. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that have many documented health benefits. Many people think of yogourt as the main food source of probiotics, and it’s true that yougout contains good probiotics, however it is not the only source! Other foods rich in probiotics include kefir, kvass, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh and apple cider vinegar. Foods high in fiber can help to feed the probiotics that already exist in our body which can be helpful for strengthening the immune system. Fiber also helps to reduce inflammation in the body and may help our bodies heal more quickly from infections. A diet rich in antioxidants such as vitamin C, zinc, and Vitamin A is also key to keep the immune system strong.
Foods to Avoid (weaken immunity)
1. Packaged Foods: canned and packaged soups and prepared foods like pizza, french fries, hotdogs, burgers and chicken nuggets, chips,and other packaged snacks 2. Vegetable oils: soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil, peanut oil, rice bran oil, grapeseed oil and cottonseed oil
3. Sugary Foods: Foods: breakfast cereals, candies, soda, sweetened juices and yogurts, granola bars, store bought cookies, cakes and pastries.
Foods to Increase (strengthen immunity)
1. Probiotic rich foods: yougourt (including cow, goat, sheep and coconut yogourts), kefir, kvass, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh
2. Prebiotic rich foods: onions, garlic, leeks, bananas, asparagus, artichoke
3. Fiber rich foods: apples, carrots, oats, beans, legumes, flaxseeds, chia seeds, berries
4. Vitamin C rich foods: Papaya, Citrus fruit, Red Bell Peppers, Spinach, Berries, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Watercress, Asparagus, Pineapple, Tomatoe, Cantaloupe, manogoes
5. Vitamin A rich foods: Liver, carrots, sweet potato, kale, spinach, butter, brocolli, eggs, red and yellow bell peppers, cantloupe, apricots, mangos, squash, tuna
6. Zinc rich foods: beef, chicken, turkey, pumpkin seeds, watermelon seeds, shellfish, eggs, dairy, liver, spinach, garlic, some beans, peanuts (I only choose non-GMO)
We also need to understand that sugar and packaged and processed foods are highly addicting. Children and adults alike strongly crave these foods and they are also easy to provide when we are busy.
Some tips for avoiding the use of packaged and processed foods include planning meals ahead of time, batch cooking and simply keeping these foods out of the house. My kids know where the fruit and veggie draws are in the fridge and this is where they look when they want a snack. Because we simply don't keep packaged and processed foods in our house, they know it is just not a possibility. Also remember, we are the primary role models for our children. If we eat better, so will they.