You Are as Healthy as What You Eat
Parents go to great lengths to keep their families well during cold and flu season, making appointments for flu vaccines and policing good hand-washing techniques. But one major mode of illness defense is often overlooked. Regardless of age, the kind of food your family eats plays a significant role in the immune system's ability to fight harmful viruses and bacteria.
"Good nutrition is essential in preventing illness," says Sarah Armstrong, director of Duke University's Healthy Lifestyles program. "It is not so much what you eat just during the flu season, or what you eat once you are already sick, but your patterns of eating throughout the year that make a notable difference."
So which foods should we stock to keep us at school and work instead of home on the couch?
'Superfood' product claims
You can't walk down the aisle of your supermarket without encountering countless packages claiming to boost immunity. Cereals and pastas advertise omega-3s, yogurts and cheeses push probiotics, and everything from sodas to oatmeal claim the antioxidant benefits of pomegranate or other so-called "superfoods." For busy shoppers, separating fact from fiction and trying to balance family meals can be a chore.
"I'm suspicious of marketed health claims, and I get overwhelmed by all of the dos and don'ts of nutrition," says Andrea Scarboro, a Raleigh mother of two.
According to Ann Margaret Kane, a registered dietician who works in Triangle-area school systems, when it comes to most of these products, "you're spending more money and not gaining the nutritional benefit.
Armstrong advises shoppers to "beware of any food that advertises it is good for you. If it has an advertisement, it is likely in a box, and not as healthy as a food that does not come in packaging."
Back to basics
The rules for balancing nutrition and maintaining a strong, healthy immune system are not fancy or exciting, according to Cathie Ostrowski, a registered dietician and owner of Personalized Nutrition Inc. in Apex. "It's what your grandma said: Eat your fruits and vegetables. It's still true."
The general rule of thumb is to try to focus 80 percent of your grocery shopping on the perimeter of the store where most fresh foods are located, such as produce, meat/seafood, dairy, eggs, cheese and whole-grain breads. Along with whole grains, protein and dairy, adults and children need five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Do some fruits or veggies offer more immune power than others? According to Ostrowski, shoppers should select produce that covers all the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.
Taking a multivitamin is a good secondary measure to supplement diet, "but avoid the trap of thinking a vitamin 'covers' those uneaten vegetables," Armstrong says. Nutrients in whole foods are most always more beneficial than those offered in supplements.
When it comes to meat and dairy choices, opt for low-fat as often as you can. Kane advises families to cut down on fatty meats like sausage and burgers. "Chicken, fish and turkey are better alternatives," she says. Also look for whole grains when shopping for bread. "Eat less refined starches like French fries and pizza. Go for whole grains instead, like wheat bread, rye, whole-grain pasta and pita bread."
Getting kids to bite
Just because you buy it does not mean your kids will eat it. Getting kids to eat more fruits and veggies can seem like a daunting task, but experts agree that making good nutrition a family affair is the key to success.
"Priority No. 1 is eating together," says Patricia Becker, lead pediatric dietician for North Carolina Children's Hospital and North Carolina Dietetic Association president-elect.
Monica Gulisano, a Chapel Hill-based registered dietician and mother of three, agrees, saying, "Even if it means bringing your fast food home and serving it on a plate instead of on the go in the car, prioritizing mealtime together is at the core of healthy family habits. You can gradually get to the point where you can enjoy more fruits and vegetables and all of the elements of a healthy lifestyle."
Ask children to help select fruits and vegetables for the grocery list and put them to work choosing from the produce section.
"Preparation also gives kids more of a buy-in," Becker says. Allow them to help wash or chop produce, as age-appropriate. Older children can take part in cooking too. Take it one step further and start a family herb garden in pots on your porch this spring. The more kids participate in the process from start to finish, the more likely they are to embrace new foods.
Perhaps most importantly, be patient with picky eaters. "The average child won't even accept a food until they've seen it in the same form at least 12 times," Ostrowski says. When a dish consistently fails to tempt their taste buds, try presenting that food in a whole new way. Instead of steamed broccoli, try tossing broccolini with pasta. The nutrients are still beneficial, regardless of presentation.
After a few struggles during the toddler years, Durham mother Deshara Eley-Abdullah found green veggies to be the least palatable for her children. She eventually discovered that lasagna and most pasta dishes with tomato sauce served as a good disguise. "Now they will give most veggies a try," she says.
"Smoothies are a great way to get fruits in for picky eaters," offers Gulisano. "Simply blending a cup of berries and a banana with milk or yogurt offers antioxidants and fiber they might not otherwise get. Throw in a little bit of ice cream (half a cup) if that texture is more appealing to the child."
Budgeting your time
Even the most well-meaning parents can struggle to find time to prepare healthier meals. Natalie Newell, clinical dietician for Rex Healthcare in Wake Forest, advises her patients to set aside one time during the week when schedules are less busy and prepare for the week's meals.
"Wash grapes. Wash salad and put it into separate containers. Put meat in a crock pot so it's ready during the week when you need it," she says. Prioritizing 30 minutes to map out your weekly nutrition goals leads to a less stressful week.
Slow and steady progress
"A healthy lifestyle is a journey, and there is no perfect journey," Gulisano says. Most importantly, parents don't need to be confused by the confounding marketing claims of "superfoods" or cure-all supplements. Instead, families can promote health year-round by keeping nutrition simple, choosing colorful whole foods and enjoying them together.
Mary Parry is a Triangle-area freelance writer and recovering chocoholic who has loved green peas as long as she can remember, but learned to enjoy broccoli only as an adult.
Deceptively Delicious by Jessica Seinfeld is a cookbook designed to help parents sneak pureed veggies into foods that kids already love. (www.DeceptivelyDelicious.com)
The American Dietetic Association Web site offers recipes and food logs to help families prioritize healthy eating. (www.EatRight.org)
Dole Food Company designed a detailed 5-A-Day program with easy-to-access resources for kids, parents and teachers. (http://188.8.131.52)
Eat Smart, Move More NC is a statewide program that promotes increased opportunities for healthy eating and physical activity, with a Web site that offers meal-planning guides and other handy family resources. (www.eatsmartmovemorenc.com/Family.html)
Prioritize Healthy Habits
Follow these recommendations to help keep your family healthy:
Good hand-washing – Wash with soap for at least 20 seconds before meals and snacks.
Balanced nutrition – Eat as many different colors of fruits and vegetables as you can.
Daily exercise – Boost your immunity by getting your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a day.
Adequate sleep – Adults need seven to eight hours each night to help heal and rejuvenate; kids need 10 or more.
Low stress levels – Know when to take time for yourself.
Flu vaccinations – Build up antibodies to lessen your chance of infection.
Eating Healthy on a Budget
Eating healthy doesn't have to mean doubling your grocery budget. A little bit of planning can also help you save money at the supermarket.
Registered dietician Anne Margaret Kane suggests these four money-saving shopping tips:
1. Eat seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables.
2. Watch for specials at your supermarket.
3. Keep an eye out for other stores offering bettering deals through sales circulars.
4. Clip coupons and purchase store brands.
Eat a Rainbow
Choose as many different colors, textures and varieties of fruits and veggies as you can every day to maintain a balanced diet and a strong, healthy immune system.
Red – strawberries, cranberries, apples, tomatoes, bell peppers, radishes
Orange – oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes
Yellow – bananas, lemons, squash, bell peppers, corn
Green – grapes, apples, kiwi, broccoli, peas, spinach, cucumbers, lettuce
Purple and Blue – grapes, blueberries, blackberries, plums, eggplant, onions