Fresh choices

It’s the time of year when people start to hear a lot about how to avoid coming down with colds and the flu.

All kinds of news reports and articles pop up making interesting claims. Some insist certain foods are super foods that prevent illness, while others say there are certain nutritional supplements that will boost the immune system. Wouldn’t it be nice if we only had to do one or two simple and easy things like that to avoid seasonal illnesses?

To avoid getting sick, it is wise to think about what makes people susceptible to illness. Those with poor hygiene habits and those who fail to take advantage of available vaccines can spread disease, but lack of exercise and a poor diet is what will likely lead a person down the path to a weakened immune system. That weakened immune system in turn makes illness far more likely.

Thankfully, the immune system is something over which a person has a lot of control. To stay healthy, strengthen it. It’s not hard.

Proper nutrition is essential to building a strong immune system, but exactly what does proper nutrition mean? It means an individual needs to eat enough nutrients. Nutrients are the compounds in foods that help a body grow and repair itself.

They include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, essential fatty acids, water, carbohydrates, proteins, and fat. A body makes nonessential nutrients, but the essential nutrients needed come from the individual’s diet. Without those essential nutrients, sickness is likely. And even though the flu season typically runs from October to May,, it’s necessary to put more thought into what is put into one’s mouth year round. It can make a huge difference to how well a body fights off cold and flu germs.

To maintain a healthy immune system, a healthy, balanced diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy and healthy fats should be eaten. If a person selects these kinds of foods most of the time, he or she is probably getting the nutrients and antioxidants needed to boost the immune system. That is, if the person is also eating enough calories. For most people, that’s around 2,000 calories a day. Even if, due to age, size and body type, a person requires fewer calories than the average adult, eating fewer than 1,200 calories a day makes the body vulnerable to illness. At the same time, too many calories can lead to obesity and another host of health problems.

So, be aware of how many calories come from eating and drinking to make sure those calories count. Avoid eating a lot of sweets, processed foods and fast foods because they are lacking in the nutrients needed to stay healthy. That includes avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages. In addition to sugar, these are also loaded with calories, so people still feel hungry even after drinking them.

A lot of people wonder how juice fits into this picture. Many people think that drinking a glass of juice at breakfast every day will keep them healthy. Especially orange juice, because it’s loaded with vitamin C. Remember that orange juice is also loaded with naturally occurring sugar and lots of calories. It’s not bad, but drink it in moderation. Plus, when given the choice, it’s always best to eat fruit rather than drink it because that will provide the benefit of the fruit’s fiber. If choosing to drink juice, be sure to drink no more than 6 ounces of 100 percent fruit juice a day. That includes all fruit juices and it’s probably why the old adage says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” rather than saying, “A glass of cider a day keeps the doctor away.” Instead of relying heavily on juices, stay hydrated by drinking low calorie beverages like tea, plain water or water with a twist of citrus.

And remember, those who fill up on sweet beverages and junk food will most likely overeat, but still won’t eat enough of the nutrient-dense food needed for the body to operate efficiently. So, when choosing foods to eat or to feed to loved ones, make the best choices possible. While it is true that some foods are more nutritious than others, rather than focusing solely on the specific foods and beverages some people promise will boost your immune system, make a point to eat a wide variety of healthy foods from all of the food groups.

Almost any fruit or vegetable is a good choice, especially ones rich in antioxidants like selenium, zinc, beta carotene, and vitamins A, C and E. A person just can’t go wrong reaching for brightly colored produce. Make sure the diet includes lots of beautiful and deeply colored vegetables and fruit like sweet potatoes, broccoli, red peppers, tomatoes, collard greens, berries and kale.

To stay healthy, a body needs enough lean protein, foods rich in vitamin D, and more foods featuring omega-3 fatty acids. Select from foods like fish, poultry, lean meats, eggs, beans, seeds and nuts. An individual can keep the gastrointestinal track healthy by eating foods like low-fat yogurts with active cultures that contain probiotics and are also fortified with vitamin D. And pack additional nutrients into the diet by seasoning foods with herbs, onions, garlic and ginger instead of relying heavily on salt, butter and cream.

The most important thing to remember about food choices is that a healthy, well-balanced diet is made up of a wide assortment of foods. Make sure the diet is varied. Fill at least half the plate with colorful fruits vegetables at every meal and make every calorie count.

If, despite everything, a person finds him/herself feeling under the weather, don’t risk making others ill. If contagious, stay home. Get plenty of rest. Eat what is tolerated. For nausea, try some chicken soup or broth to stay well-hydrated. Salty liquids create thirst. Warm beverages may also help provide comfort.

Many health professionals recommend the BRAT diet for those suffering with colds or flu. It includes easily digestible foods like bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. These foods are well tolerated by most people and can help a person ingest enough food to return to good health. Then resume eating a more nutritionally balanced diet.

Just don’t waste a lot of hard-earned money on unproven products that claim they will boost immune systems. Instead, spend more effort on living a healthy lifestyle. A person is more likely to fight off colds and flu if the person eats well and gets plenty of exercise every day. Good nutrition is incredibly important for good health, so eat smart each and every day.

People who are struggling to make ends meet may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture knows a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at www.mybenefits.ny.gov/, or contact your local social services office.

For even more ideas to improve a family’s health, call to learn more about the Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. It helps people learn fun new ways to eat more fruits and vegetables, drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, and get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. The Eat Smart New York Program is one of many programs offered by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County, a community-based educational organization affiliated with Cornell University, Chautauqua County Government, the NYS SUNY system, and the federal government through the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. CCE-Chautauqua is part of a network of extension associations, programs and services located across the state and nation. For more information , call 716-664-9502 ext. 217 or visit our website at www.cce.cornell.edu/chautauqua.

Cornell University Cooperative Extension provides equal program and employment opportunities.

Healthy and tasty new recipes can be found at Choosemyplate.gov, by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website or try this easy and good-for-you stew in the center of this article.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in the OBSERVER