By Charlyn Fargo Ware, M.S., R.D., L.D.N.
For this month’s article, Jay Kitterman has asked Charlyn Fargo Ware to write on how we can eat healthy and be a little less stressful during the pandemic. In addition to her role at SIU, Charlyn is an adjunct instructor for the Lincoln Land Community College Culinary Arts program teaching Nutrition for Food Service Professionals and Food Safety.
I’m a big believer that what we eat makes a difference in our health, including our immune systems. With all the concern over COVID-19, it’s a great time to carefully choose the foods we put in our grocery cart. Here’s a look at some foods that can boost our immune system – and help reduce stress – and a look at what Southern Illinois University School of Medicine is doing to help doctors and others learn about the field of culinary medicine.
First, our immune system. While there are no magic foods, certain foods can impact how weak or strong our immune system is. And there’s no better time to give yours a boost.
- Think fruits and vegetables and eat them every day. Produce contains key vitamins involved in the immune system. The vitamin C in foods like strawberries, bell peppers, potatoes, broccoli and citrus help the immune system function. Vitamin A, also found in produce, keeps tissues in the mouth, intestines and respiratory tract healthy. Foods high in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots and cantaloupe.
- Protein also helps boost our immune system by supplying the amino acids needed to build essential proteins, including antibodies. Beef, pork and chicken are good sources as well as beans, peas, Greek yogurt, milk and nuts.
- Add fermented foods to your grocery list to help provide good gut bacteria. Your gut is where a lot of cells involved in immunity live. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha (a fermented tea). The more good bacteria in the gut, the less room for harmful bugs.
- Use spices liberally. Spices and seasonings like garlic, ginger, oregano and cinnamon are considered anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and full of antioxidants. Adding these ingredients to foods gives you more flavor and adds beneficial compounds to meals.
- Fiber is key to good immunity. We need 25 to 35 grams a day. Add quinoa to your salads; switch to brown rice and whole wheat bread to boost your intake of fiber. Check the label to make sure that slice of bread has at least 3 grams of fiber.
- Pay attention to your lifestyle. Move as much and as often as you can, and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner – just not in excess.
Hopefully, reading this isn’t adding to your stress level – thinking this is just one more thing to do. That’s not the point. Many of us are simply “living” stressed – as we navigate this time of unknown and big changes to our normal routines.
Our bodies release stress hormones when we feel stressed: adrenaline (epinephrine) when we feel startled, and cortisol when we feel long-term stress. Having a little jolt of the “fight or flight response” helps get our bodies ready for action if we need to jump back from a busy street or defend ourselves from the vicious bunny that unexpectedly hopped out of the bushes. That adrenaline jolt makes the heart beat faster and the blood pressure rise, but then it goes away quickly. The blood pressure and heart beat come back down. If we feel long-term stress, however, cortisol begins to affect our sleep, digestion and mental health, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
While there isn’t definitive research linking stress management and certain nutrients, eating a healthy diet makes a difference. Several nutrients have been shown to help our brain function normally – foods high in antioxidants and B vitamins. (It turns out we are what we think – and eat. And thinking right can help reduce stress.)
To help with stress, concentrate on a healthy diet with extra fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy and lean protein. In addition, make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D. Studies have shown that increased intake of vitamin D can ease stress. Vitamin D is in fortified foods such as milk, fatty fish like salmon, soy products and some yogurt and some mushrooms (check the label of yogurt and fresh mushrooms to see if it has vitamin D).
While our bodies can make vitamin D from the sun, up to 50 percent of the world’s population may not get enough sun, and 40 percent of U.S. residents are deficient in vitamin D. We simply spend too much time indoors, wear sunblock outside and eat a diet low in good sources of vitamin D.
There is plenty of research underway to see if vitamin D protects against COVID-19. Most of it is preliminary, but there’s a handful of recent studies that claim vitamin D may play a role in both the severity of COVID-19 and the risk of developing the disease. Stay tuned on that.
This concept of food as medicine is what I spend half my time at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine doing. I was hired in February 2020 to be part of the school’s Culinary Medicine team, as an educator and registered dietitian. (The other half of my work week is spent in nutrition consults with patients in the Department of General Internal Medicine.)
Dr. Stacy Sattovia, MD and SIU associate professor of clinical medicine and certified culinary medicine specialist, agrees that nutritious food is fundamental to life and health. She and Dr. Leslie Smith, MD and SIU Director of Integrative Medicine and Culinary Medicine, helped start the Culinary Medicine program at SIU School of Medicine.
Medical education has on average 20 hours of nutrition education over four years, most taught during the early, basic science focused portion of medical school, according to a study published in the American Journal of Medicine in 2014.
Since then, a program was launched by the Culinary Institute of America and Harvard School of Public Health to provide multidisciplinary participants with a culinary experience based on nutrition science, culinary skills, mindfulness and behavior change. Physicians who attended demonstrated improvements in their own dietary habits in just three months. And they reported increased skill in initiating counseling and providing nutritional help to their patients, according to a study published in Journal of American Medical Association Internal Medicine
Tulane University School of Medicine followed by partnering with the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University to create the world’s first medical school-based teaching kitchen led by a physician and chef.
SIU isn’t far behind. Prior to COVID-19, we were finalizing architectural drawings for building a teaching kitchen on the Springfield campus as part of the curriculum for residents, medical students, staff, faculty, patients and the community. We will be revisiting them next spring. In the meantime, we are doing lots of online demos, videos, articles and publications to help spread the word that food matters.
“Culinary medicine is a new evidence-based field that blends the art of food and cooking with the science of medicine,” said Sattovia. “The goal is to help people reach good personal medical decisions about accessing and eating high quality foods to have the potential to prevent and treat disease while restoring well-being.”
“When you can help physicians to see the importance of food, you not only reach them but also all the patients that they care for over the course of their careers,” adds Smith.
If you want to get started on the path to healthier eating, try this Roasted Sweet Potato and Black Bean Salad. It’s full of fiber, vitamin A and is a plant-based meal that you can eat as-is or fill a whole wheat taco shell and top with avocado, tomatoes and hot sauce or serve it over grains for a Buddha bowl.
It’s adapted from a New York Times recipe.
Roasted sweet potato and black bean salad
1 lb sweet potatoes
1 small red onion
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1/4 teaspoon salt
Juice and zest from 1 lime
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1 cup cooked black beans, drained and rinsed if using canned
1/2 cup cilantro
1/4 cup pepitas
Preheat oven to 400˚ F. Peel sweet potatoes, cut into 1/4 inch cubes and place on a sheet tray. Chop onion into 1/4 inch pieces and add to the tray. Drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil on top and add 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Toss until sweet potatoes are well coated. Spread into a single layer and roast until sweet potatoes are tender and starting to brown, 35 to 40 minutes.
While the sweet potatoes are roasting, combine remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a jar with the lime juice, 1 teaspoon lime zest, minced garlic, and chili powder. Shake well.
Once sweet potatoes are done, transfer to a bowl. Add in the black beans, pepitas, and cilantro. Drizzle with the dressing and toss until salad is combined. This is best done with the sweet potatoes are still warm. Serves 4.
Per serving: 303 calories, 8.5 g protein, 37.8 g carbohydrates, 14.5 g fat, 5.9 g total sugars, 8.6 g fiber, 220.7 mg sodium.
Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian and culinary medicine educator with SIU School of Medicine.