A couple of days ago I saw a funny post in my Facebook feed. There was an image of a very long line of people queueing outside a TV studio. The caption was “The aspiring contestants waiting for the selection interview for Masterchef, post COVID”. It is funny and at the same time highlights the fact that many people who had no idea how to boil an egg before this Pandemic started, are now forced to cook on a daily basis. Will we all come out the other side cooking like professional chefs?
Whereas some countries have had shortages of fresh eggs and toilet paper, not just hand sanitisers, masks and gloves, luckily I’ve not experienced this. The only shortage I experienced (and that was only at the very beginning) was a shortage of flour, whether white or wholemeal, all purpose, strong or self raising. The take on this? Many have turned to baking on a big scale. I have mixed feelings about this and I’m about to tell you why.
A healthy immune system depends on a healthy gut
If you have been regularly reading my blog posts you will know that I constantly remind people that immunity lies in your gut. Just in case you missed it…anywhere from 70 to 80% of your immune system resides in your gut. A digestive system that does not work properly, for whatever reason, is likely to result in a number of problems. In other words, your health starts on a plate.
Some foods can help you stay healthy, boost your immune function and fight pathogens. Others can compromise your health and, over the course of time, can lead not only to illness, but chronic or critical life-threatening diseases such as cancer. Taking it one step further, if you have an underactive immune system, this can lead to severe infections and immunodeficiency. At the other end of the spectrum, if your immune system is overactive, your body thinks it is being attacked, then allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases are two possible signs of imbalance.
The buzz word in health blogs in recent times has been “Eating Clean”. The definition varies somewhat between the different proponents. However, generally speaking what is meant by this is: consuming wholefoods which are as close to their natural state as possible, i.e. not processed. This also includes avoiding foods with harmful additives and preservatives. (Consider the shelf life of twelve months for a store bought quiche, compared to the same home-made quiche which will last 3 to 4 days at the most!).
To this eating clean I would add a couple of things, which lie at the core of my studies and beliefs in nutrition. These include a sugar free diet to avoid inflammation and raising the G.I. (and sugar here means anything from honey to agave syrup, passing through artificial sweeteners – all except pure stevia!).
Foods that cause inflammation (i.e. foods to avoid)
Inflammation is a natural process in your body which helps us to stay healthy. However, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, as the saying goes. When levels of inflammation rise above the normal range, this can lead to serious health problems such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The list below is a sample of the main foods that have been proven to increase the markers for inflammation, which are C-reactive protein (CRP) and Interleukin-6 (IL-6).
Fried foods – According to the Journal of Nutrition, consuming fried foods is directly linked to increased levels of CRP and IL-6. Steam or oven bake food instead.
Processed meats – have been classified as carcinogenic by the WHO (World Health Organisation). Red meat in general, especially in large quantities, is not recommended to fight inflammation. Choose grain fed, free range, hormone free chicken instead.
Alcohol – which does not just increase CRP but can also lead to Leaky Gut Syndrome. The advice is to have 1 to 2 glasses of (red) wine per week OR LESS.
Refined Carbohydrates – remember the baking I talked about? (White) pasta, white bread, biscuits and crackers can all increase inflammation, especially of the joints (and you are probably already moving less as it is) as well as increasing blood sugar levels (they have a high G.I). Replacing these with wholemeal alternatives is a healthier option. Eating more protein and green vegetables would be even better both in terms of health, and to avoid piling on extra weight.
Artificial sweeteners – studies have shown that they are not just harmful but often lead you to consume even more, and increase, rather than help to reduce (and manage) sugar cravings! Stick to stevia or use naturally sweet foods e.g. bananas, beetroot, carrots, courgettes or pureed apple in your desserts.
Vegetable oils – It is estimated that most people consume a ratio of 15:1 of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fatty acids. The recommended ratio is 4:1 and anything above that can trigger inflammation. Highly processed or refined vegetable oils are full of Omega 6. Adding raw extra virgin olive oil over your salad is the best thing you can do for yourself.
So, now that you know cooking with white flour, sugar and highly processed oils is not good… What should you be aiming for?
The rationale is that for possibly the first time in our collective lives, we are all at home. Whilst some are working harder than ever, many people have a lot more time on their hands. The option of going out to eat is no longer an option. In a way we are thrown back to life during the time our grandparents lived: cooking at home with basic ingredients. Even for those who have less time, healthy food doesn’t necessarily take longer to prepare. It all depends.
Foods that boost your immune system
What should you be putting on your plates to boost your immune system and keep you healthy?
i. Blueberries and other flavonoid rich foods such as green tea.
ii. Raw cacao – for its antioxidant theobromine, which incidentally also helps lift your mood. Note that the literature refers to dark chocolate which allegedly is supposed to contain smaller amounts of sugar. In my experience dark chocolate bars contain as much of or even more sugar than milk chocolate or white chocolate. I found a whopping 48grams of sugar in a 100gm dark chocolate bar with almonds recently. Enough said. Stick to raw cacao which has preserved all its properties. One of my favourite recipes, which also includes an extra healthy dose of avocado, is raw cacao mousse (you can read the recipe here). The point is, you can naturally sweeten bitter cacao, whilst preserving its properties, and adding other yummy and healthy ingredients, without the need for sugar etc
iii. Turmeric – the curcumin in turmeric is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Remember to either cook it slightly (add it to your stews, vegetable soups etc) or consume it with some black pepper to allow your body to absorb it.
iv. Oily fish – to help you up your intake of Omega 3 fatty acids , which, among many other things, can help alleviate rheumatoid arthritis.
v. Broccoli – Rich in vitamin C which is known for increasing immunity, as well as the antioxidant sulpraphane.
vi. Sweet potatoes – (not to be confused with yams) they are a rich source of vitamin A a.k.a. beta carotene, another powerful antioxidant.
vii. Spinach – full of antioxidants, flavonoids, carotenoids, vitamin C and E. Just lightly saute it or blanch quickly (literally a few seconds). Overcooking it will simply kill its properties. Less is more.
viii. Ginger – often consumed in teas or added to soups and other recipes in Asian cuisine, ginger is both anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative.
ix. Sunflower seeds- rich in the antioxidant Vitamin E. Add them to your salads.
x. Almonds – As per the sunflower seeds above. In addition they are a good source of magnesium (which can help sleep, bones and the digestive system) and fibre. A handful a day as a healthy snack is the way to go. Remember to soak them overnight first.
xi. Oranges, kiwis, clementines, lemon… - All things citrus, as well as kiwis and red bell peppers, are packed with Vitamin C, which always helps. Consume whole and raw rather than in juices. Add freshly squeezed lemon to your water, your salads etc
xii. Probiotics – which can be sourced from food (kefir, plain yoghurt etc) or taken as supplements, to help gut flora stay healthy.
xiii. Vitamin D – the best source is the sun. Exposure to sunlight for 10 to 20 minutes every day without the sunscreen and not with fully covered arms, legs (otherwise it’s pointless!) to get the Vitamin D you need. Alternatively there are foods that contain vitamin D ( think tuna, salmon, egg yolks) but they are not as beneficial as 10 minutes of natural sunlight per day. Or, worst case, in supplement form. Studies have shown a connection between low levels of Vitamin D and a higher incidence of upper respiratory tract infections, as well as a higher rate of diseases such as Tuberculosis. Get that deck chair out now, even if it isn’t summer just yet! It will also do wonders for your mood and energy levels.
xiv. Zinc – research has demonstrated that zinc can interfere with the molecular process that causes bacteria build up in the nasal passages. So eat more eggs, shellfish, chickpeas, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains.
What else can I do to boost my immune system?
Of course it is not just food that will help you stay healthy. There are lifestyle factors, too. The medical literature, whether from Western Medicine or Traditional Medicine agrees on these:
- Smoking is a no no. Shisha is allegedly four times worse than normal tobacco and vaping is 10 times worse. Can’t stop? Consider using a nicotine patch and/or hypnosis.
- Stress – whether emotional or otherwise, is a major contributing factor to reducing immune function, albeit the mechanism is not 100% clear yet. If baking relaxes you then by all means, bake away! (with wholemeal flour and no sugar, please!) Mindfulness, taking time out, exercising, long hot baths, dancing, singing, playing the bango… whatever works for you!
- Limit alcohol consumption to a maximum of 1 to 2 glasses per week or less! Remember, the liver is the filter to your entire body. An overloaded liver cannot sustain health, quite the contrary.
- Move! Whether taking advantage of all those free online classes in yoga, pilates, stretching, walking around your house or flat, using the treadmill or static bike you bought – the one which has been sitting gathering dust in a dark corner of your home - or gardening….. Move that body! Don’t just sit there. It will help your joints stay supple, your blood to circulate, your mood to lift. It will make you less lethargic and more alert, it will help you maintain a healthy weight and yes, your immune system will also benefit. (Being overweight has been directly linked to being hospitalised with COVID-19 in studies conducted in Switzerland).
- Get enough sleep. The average adult needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Restful and uninterrupted, preferably. Anything under 6 hours and your chances of suffering from hear disease increase dramatically. Sleep helps your body recover and recharge those batteries. Having trouble? Take magnesium at night (raw cacao, almonds, a nice long warm bath with Epsom salts, or some magnesium supplements eaten with dinner) will help. You can also try drinking some linden or valerian herbal teas before sleep.
More Natural immune boosters
I already focused on how to improve immunity and help you avoid or recover from the common cold or flu in an earlier blog post (click here), but as a quick reminder, taking echinacea can help boost your immune system. Micro algae supplements (100% organic from a safe source) such as spirulina and chlorella can also help (read more here). Ginseng and elderberry can also be beneficial.
Why baked goods are not the answer
To recap on why I have mixed feelings about everyone turning to baking …. remember: baking is great if it helps you to pass the time, if it relaxes you, if it helps to feed your family. However, just like bread can be healthy(sourdough) or unhealthy (white flour and instant yeast - see blog post on this here) so can what you bake, how you bake it and what you bake with.
You might be turning to baked goods in the misguided belief that it will help your mood to lift… instead, much like coffee, this will just lead you on a rollercoaster ride up, with a fairly quick crash soon afterwards leaving you even worse off than before. To lift your mood avoid anything that raises blood sugar quickly, and a sedentary lifestyle away from sunlight.
I’ll leave you with this thought: The body is continually generating immune cells. As we age our immune levels naturally drop, but if you follow a healthy diet and lifestyle, you can stay and feel younger and healthier for longer, and healthy cells will regenerate naturally.
Stay home, stay safe and now more than ever…..eat healthy!