Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Immunity superstars

One reason I took on the Eight is Great challenge is to try to boost my immune system. Over the last five years, I've had several colds, and I hate the possibility of getting my little boy sick. There's no way for me to take time "off" unless I'm lying on my bed near death. Also, as I've passed my twenties, I've become more aware of the effects of aging and the threat of cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.

There are many factors that affect susceptibility to illness. We all know how important it is not to smoke cigarettes and how critical it is to wash our hands during flu season. Healthy food choices are just one more way, albeit an important and often overlooked way, to build a robust defense system. So as I choose my fruits, vegetables and beans every day, I'm also trying to choose foods with immune-boosting effects: foods that have been shown to have high nutrient density, high fiber, and anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

The fruits and vegetables with the highest health-boosting scores across a range of factors appear to be:
Greens (+ cruciferous vegetables): Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, romaine lettuce
Onions and garlic
Mushrooms, including the white button mushroom
Berries and cherries: Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries
Tomatoes, including tomato sauce and salsa
Beans: Black, kidney, pinto, garbanzo
* Note that this list is primarily sourced from Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman cross-referenced with 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden. They have compiled extensive stacks of research on this topic.

While I'm not about to limit my diet to these foods, each research article and book I read makes me more motivated to include these immunity superstars in my meals whenever possible. Luckily, many of the immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables are cheap or reasonably priced. I can even grow several of them in my garden, including carrots, the greens, onions and garlic, and tomatoes. Well...maybe tomatoes.

I've seen most of these choices on various nutritionist "Top Ten" lists over the years. One surprise of my recent research is the health benefits of the common white button mushroom. In the past I'd had the impression that shiitake and other pricier mushrooms had a nutritional edge on the cheap-o, easily available button mushroom, but in fact the white buttons seem to have important anti-cancer effects.

The research on these foods has spurred me to find ways to include at least three choices from this list in my meals every day as part of the Eight is Great challenge. Frozen blueberries have easily become part of breakfast and the occasional smoothie. I eat various kinds of beans at least three times a week as hummus, chili, bean salad, taco, or a simple side. Onions and garlic can be included in almost any dish (whether they are actually in the recipe or not). Carrots and broccoli, beloved by my son and thus also by myself, have become part of the regular meal rotation.

The two foods that I have challenged myself to include more often are kale and mushrooms. Kale grows rampantly in my garden, seemingly immune to the cabbage moths that plague other cruciferous vegetables, and so it is incredibly easy to run out and harvest a handful every day - even through the winter. The ultra-nutritious high-anti-oxidant kale just continues to grow back. Lately, I've been sauteing kale with olive oil, salt and lemon as a side dish. As for mushrooms, I've been able to incorporate them frequently in omelets, pasta sauces and piled high on veggie pizzas.

Strangely enough for someone who is trying so hard to eat vegetables, I haven't been eating many salads. While I like salads, and they are highly recommended, they seem like an extra effort to make. Perhaps my failure to eat them, while still being able to get eight fruit, bean and vegetable servings per day, just demonstrates that salads are only one way to get vegetables. There are many other possibilities for including veggies, and their immunity-boosting benefits, in your diet.

* Note: Information provided is educational in nature, please consult your physician or nutritionist for advice about your particular situation.


BetsyR said...

Kale green drinks are an easy way to get lots of kale. Banana, kale, fruit, and water (optional yogurt).

Brad K. said...

Dr. Wahl's youtube video (from TEDx Iowa City) got me to try turnip greens. What I found is that mustard greens are similar, but lack a certain bitter astringentness. But then I found that the package of turnips, after too long on the counter, sprout. And grow when I stuck a couple in the planter on my deck.

I cannot say I enjoy, exactly, adding steamed greens to my brown rice, but I have gotten to accept them. Adding the cranberries made it, um, tasty, but I wouldn't actually recommend steaming cranberries with greens. I was kinda glad to get to the end of the package of cranberries.