As an RD, you’re probably getting bombarded with questions from your clients, neighbors, friends, and family about which foods, snacks, and beverages can support their immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic. The overwhelming amount of conflicting information in the media, on grocery stores shelves, and in advertising can really stress a person out. Especially since eating is one of the few activities many people feel they have control over in their life right now, given all the uncertainties of 2020. This is an opportunity for you to contribute to your clients’ health and help them cut through the noise.
Share your knowledge by offering evidence-based recommendations in simple language with tips that are easy to execute. RDs already know that food is medicine; in other words, our immune system doesn’t need a pricey superfood powder to function properly or an ozone enema to rid our body of its toxins. Our incredible sophisticated immune system already knows what to do—we just need to give it the optimal environment and fuel, then get out of the way and let it flourish.
Let’s tackle the evidence around the role vitamin- and mineral-rich foods, phytonutrients, and protein play in gut health and immunity.
Two Sides of The Same Coin
Most people understand that what we eat can impact our health significantly. When consumed in excess over time, certain beverages such as alcohol, and foods high in saturated fats, sugar, or sodium, may contribute to or exacerbate poor overall health and chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and more. During the pandemic, 16% of US adults have reported drinking more alcohol than usual and online sales of alcohol were up 500% in April, while fresh and packaged bakery product sales jumped 37% from March 2019 to March 2020.
What may be less understood by the public is the healing power that foods can provide. Many foods already can meet needs that individuals often use medications and supplements for, such as supporting gut health, reducing inflammation, promoting antiviral activity, and more. While there are many chronic illnesses that can’t (and shouldn’t) be treated with diet alone, many conditions can be prevented, reversed, or greatly improved with balanced, nutritious eating habits.
Food Is Medicine: Eat to Live
Eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods is key to getting the nutrients individuals need to stay healthy—this diversity makes eating much more interesting and enjoyable. Research shows that plant-forward diets such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets are the most helpful in optimizing wellness, providing immune-supportive nutrients, and promoting longevity. Regardless of what specific diet clients follow, dietitians can guide them on how to obtain adequate protein, phytonutrients, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals. Building a balanced plate is a key strategy: 50% of the plate should be phytonutrient-rich veggies, 25% whole grains or starchy vegetables, and 25% lean protein.
The human body needs protein to build and repair bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. It also helps support immune function. Whether clients eat meat or a plant-forward or vegan/vegetarian diet, there are plenty of options to ensure they get enough of this vital nutrient. Protein sources include fish, chicken, meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, nut butters, beans, lentils, tofu, and peas.
Phytonutrients are chemicals produced by plants to help protect them from damage in nature, such as insects. They also provide significant benefits to people who eat them. Many phytonutrients give plants their color, so eating a wide variety of colorful plants provides individuals with a diverse array of nutrients—such as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory, -viral, -bacterial, and -fungal compounds—that help keep people healthy. Dietitians can explain to clients why “eating the rainbow” is so important. Phytochemicals support their immune system, help their cells communicate better, protect their DNA from environmental and age-related damage, and promote natural detoxification processes.
Phytonutrient sources include colorful fruits and vegetables, such as spinach, kale, tomatoes, carrots, peppers, squash, sweet potatoes, peaches, mangos, melons, citrus fruits, and berries, as well as nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans, legumes, herbs and spices (eg, ginger, turmeric, basil, and oregano).
Getting enough fiber each day is key to a healthy gut. Considering that the majority of the immune system is in the gut, fiber-rich food choices are an important way to impact overall health. Mood, appetite, weight, immunity, headaches, food sensitivities, and inflammation are all linked to one’s gut, so promoting a healthy microbiome with clients can improve many areas of their lives.
Fiber sources include whole grains (eg, oats, quinoa, brown rice), beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients found naturally in food individuals need to develop and function normally. These include vitamins A, C, D, E, and K and the B vitamins. The 16 essential minerals are calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium, iron, zinc, copper, manganese, iodine, selenium, molybdenum, chloride, fluoride, and chromium. These vitamins and minerals support a variety of functions in the body, such as bone development, immune health, protein synthesis, wound healing, cell damage repair, DNA synthesis, and more.
By eating balanced meals and snacks most of the time, clients can get the vitamins and minerals their bodies need—and getting them through food is the ideal way. But there are times when supplements may be necessary, if they can’t get all of the nutrients needed from diet alone, or in the context of certain health conditions. For example, according to preliminary research, vitamin D has been shown to help strengthen the immune system and may even assist in reducing COVID-19 risk or severity of symptoms. Still, dietitians can pass on to their clients that, in many cases, food is the best boon for the immune system.
— Stacy Kennedy, MPH, RD, CSO, LDN, is a board-certified specialist in nutrition with more than 20 years of experience. She holds a BS degree in nutrition and dietetics from Indiana University and a Masters degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s cofounder of Wellness Guides, LLC, and a professor of graduate studies at Simmons University. She’s an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Fitness Specialist and has served as senior clinical nutritionist for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital in Boston for 19 years.
Stacy’s career highlights include collaborating with the industry’s top nutrition and technology talent to pioneer programs, platforms, and products from the ground up that reengineered healthful eating experiences and transformed how people approached their health. She has served on scientific advisory boards and held executive vice president- and chief-level positions in start-up companies, currently as director of nutrition for Fyxx. Stacy is regularly featured on TV, radio, podcasts, and in other media and is a sought-after international speaker.