By Cara Henderson, MS, RDN
Times are challenging right now. With hundreds of thousands sick around the world with the new and rapidly spreading COVID-19 virus, people are worried, unsure of the future, and trying to protect themselves and their families from getting sick or worsening, if they are already ill. In the United States, we have over 3,000 confirmed cases at this writing, with more to come. I went for one last grocery run on Friday before buckling down for at least 3 weeks of self-imposed quarantine with my family.
As my regular readers know, I have two autoimmune diseases (which you can read more about here if you’re so inclined) that have necessitated my being on a biologic immunosuppressant medication for the past 20 years. As someone with a suppressed immune system, I am at a higher risk of catching the virus and suffering complications from it than the general population. However, I have also been following the AIP diet for the past 10 months to help heal my body’s immune system, with incredible results. (The above-mentioned link has some information regarding this diet.) In addition to the noticeable physical improvement that I’ve seen on the diet, something I did not expect is how seldom I get sick now. Before starting the diet last May, I would commonly come down with whatever illness my family members brought through the door. If one of them was sick, I knew I would be getting sick too. In the past 10 months, however, I have been sick a mere 2 days with mild respiratory symptoms – nothing that kept me in bed. This was during my husband and daughter coming down with the flu and my daughter catching another pretty serious cold a week later. I cannot believe how healthy I have been through this entire flu season, and I attribute my stronger immune system – even under the influence of the immunosuppressant – to the AIP diet.
When I first started the diet, I tracked everything – and I do mean everything – I ate in the Cronometer app, which tracks and analyzes your total dietary intake. I quickly noticed that my daily micronutrient intake – which includes vitamins and minerals – was between 200% and 300% every day. That’s like taking 2-3 multivitamins a day! Actually, it’s much better than that, because studies have shown that humans digest and absorb the vitamins and minerals from food far better than we do those in capsule form. Why? There are various explanations, but one of the most common is that food contains other compounds that may increase the bioavailability of micronutrients. Bioavailability refers to the degree to which a given nutrient is available to our bodies. When an individual vitamin or mineral is extracted from food (or created in a lab), it simply cannot be used as efficiently by the body. Food is the most natural and efficient way to deliver much-needed nutrients to your body – not to mention it tastes much better than a pill!
Which brings us to the topic at hand – strengthening our immune systems to increase our overall health, and to decrease the chance that we will contract the dreaded COVID-19 virus, as well as influenza and the common cold. A quick disclaimer here: I do not desire in any way to diminish the importance of hand-washing, social-distancing, and all of the other measures that you’re hopefully already taking to stay healthy. But diet is an often-overlooked weapon in our arsenal of disease-fighting measures. It is budget-friendly, can be tailored to your own palette, and is extremely effective when followed consistently. The good news is that the body responds quickly – within a couple of days – to an improved diet that is providing the necessary nutrients to thrive. And it doesn’t matter if you are currently healthy, ill with COVID-19, or ill with another type of disease or infection; this diet will strengthen your immune system regardless of your current state of health and help to ensure that you stay healthy.
So – what is the mysterious diet? Well, it’s not mysterious at all actually. I am not advocating the AIP diet for everyone, because while extremely healthy, not everyone needs to follow such a restrictive diet. However, the AIP with a few additions is quite a worthy goal for anyone to aim for, and the wonderful thing about starting this now is that a): you will lower your chances of getting sick and b): the foods you will be buying are likely to be in stock, maybe even in abundance, at your grocery store. The foods that the general public is stocking up on are shelf-stable but not necessarily nutritious: Vienna sausages, canned soup, chips, Ramen, boxed dinners, peanut butter, and the list goes on. At my local grocery, the produce section is overflowing, which is an excellent thing for the healthy eaters! Read on for specific tips for following this healthful diet.
Foods to Eat:
- Non-starchy vegetables – at least 9-10 cups per day, organic if possible
- Starchy vegetables – no more than 2-3 servings per day. These include potatoes, winter squash, and corn.
- All fruits – aim for no more than 2-3 servings (link to serving sizes), organic if possible
- All fresh, frozen, and canned meats and seafood – Eat at least 3 oz. per meal, 3 times per day, organic if possible
- Eggs – look for free-range, organic eggs if you can find them
- Dark chocolate – at least 75% cacao, organic if possible. Limit to 1-2 oz per day
- Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, tree nut oils, and palm shortening – all should be cold-pressed and organic if possible
- Nuts – organic of possible
The above list contains all of the foods that you can enjoy in abundance. These are all anti-inflammatory foods that will help to decrease inflammation in the body so that your immune system can work optimally to fight off any invaders.
In addition to the foods above that you should be stocking up on, there are some foods to avoid. The list below contains inflammatory foods that cause the immune system to react. We do not want to create unnecessary inflammation in our bodies with the foods we’re eating; germs from the environment do a good enough job of that all by themselves!
Foods to Avoid:
- Refined carbohydrates (this includes white flour of any kind!)
- Added sugars
- Artificial flavorings and dyes
- Any oils other than those listed above
- Legumes – these include beans, peas, soy, peanuts
By implementing this type of eating plan, you will be doing great things for your immune system and your overall health and energy levels. Check out my Recipes link for some cooking inspiration, and be sure to check back often as I will be posting new recipes every few days. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section!