How your diet can help boost immunity as COVID-19 and the flu loom

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Maybe you’re popping vitamins and upping your intake of key nutrients in the hope of strengthening your body’s defenses against COVID-19 and the flu.

But is this a sound strategy?

We consulted Dr. Nora Zabel Tossounian, an internist at Hackensack Meridian Health Primary Care and Women’s Health in Lodi.

She cautions against too many megadoses of vitamins or overeating a certain type of food just because it may supply a specific nutrient.

“There are some good medical studies that support it and there are some that don’t,” she says of foods and supplements touted as immune boosters. “The main thing that it boils down to is healthy lifestyle habits and the importance of good, balanced nutrition and exercise and sleep. Can’t beat that.”

A vitamin-based defense and clean eating may possibly help mitigate health risks on some level, but they’re not a substitute for wearing a mask, social distancing, avoiding crowds and washing your hands.

Carbs, inflammation and immunity

While some supplements may be advisable, Zabel Tossounian says we should start with our plates. Make that a moderately “clean” plate.

“I always tell my patients to try to get the nutrients as much as possible from food that’s minimally processed,” she says.

Ditch juices in favor of whole fruit (in moderation), she says, and try to cut down on processed, refined and bleached carbohydrates.

That doesn’t mean buying something just because it says “natural” or “organic” on the label.

“Many people try to say, ‘Well, these potato chips … they say they’re ‘natural,’” she says. “That’s a processed carb.”

Coronavirus snacking

Baking, a favorite pandemic pastime, can make us more vulnerable to reward eating. As we eat more carbs, our bodies produce more insulin to keep up with the sugar. Cookies can seem like a good quick fix for stress, but if we’re trying to avoid inflammation, insulin spikes are not our friend. Steve Hockstein for The Star-Ledger

Zabel Tossounian points out that carbs in excess are problematic because they cause belly fat and weight gain and increase insulin levels.

What does that have to do with immunity?

“Insulin is known to be a pro-inflammatory marker,” she says. “It can make it more challenging for our immune system to fight off infections.”

Of course, starting in March, when grocery stores began to feel the strain of the pandemic, a whole lot of people were panic-buying chips, cookies and other treats. Even if the irony is a time-honored one, we were using unhealthy behavior to try to soothe our fears about the health crisis.

“A lot of us during these stressful times tend to overeat or emotionally eat,” Zabel Tossounian says. “Mindful eating is so important. Sometimes we do make the wrong choice intentionally because we need to have that satisfaction.”

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If opting for oat milk, nut milk or other milk alternatives, look for products fortified with vitamin D. But this may not be enough to reach an optimal vitamin D level.Thomas Urbain…



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