Unprecedented. This is the word I keep hearing over and over in the media right now. These are the times we’re in. So many are thinking about things like self-care, mental health and preventing disease. With this in mind, what role does nutrition play?

Clearly, I can’t tell you that nutrition will prevent you from getting a disease like COVID 19. But it certainly plays a role in supporting your immune system and your mental health. We often forget that all that energy and those nutrients go to the brain….without a sound nutrition plan, your mental health can be affected. You want your body to be able to fight while also preventing (or at least minimizing) anxiety and depression. So keep your body and your mind strong using these nutrition tips as one of your tools:

Do not go on a restrictive diet.

You may be concerned about weight changes with the change in schedule or greater time spent at home however going on a low-calorie diet is not a good answer. Malnutrition that results from a low calorie intake simply compromises your immune system. Remember that with more calories comes greater opportunity to get nutrients in that keep your immune system running strong.

Get plenty of vitamin D.

Vitamin D plays a role in both your immune system and your mental health. Unfortunately, vitamin D is not abundant in our natural food supply – good sources include salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms, milk, yogurt and other fortified foods (where vitamin D is added to the product). To promote adequate levels of vitamin D, get plenty of sunshine. Even 15 minutes of sun exposure can meet your daily need. Hold off on the sunscreen and then apply after the 15 minutes, as sunscreen can reduce your production of vitamin D by 90%. If you’re interested in supplementation, discuss with your medical professional.

Include foods high in zinc.

Zinc is often associated with a strong immune system….just look at all the zinc lozenges and supplements available in the drug store aisle. But many people are unaware that there is strong research supporting a link between zinc and mental health. Zinc is found in high levels in the brain and a deficiency resulting from undereating contributes to mental health and behavioral issues. High-protein foods such as beef, pork, turkey, chicken, seafood (oysters anyone?) and nuts are significant sources of zinc. An extra bonus: these high protein foods are also significant sources of iron which supports the work of antioxidant enzymes in the body (supporting your immune system!). Other sources of zinc include whole grains, dairy products and baked beans.

Keep your gut healthy.

Your gastrointestinal system is your first line of defense for immunity as you get exposed to what you ingest. It’s important to keep it healthy. Additionally, your digestive tract communicates with your nervous system – this communication is often termed your gut-brain axis and it is the topic of much health research at this time. This means that the health of your digestive tract impacts the health of your mind and impacts your mood. One way to keep your gut healthy is through consuming both probiotics and prebiotics. While probiotic supplements have become popular, there are natural food sources of probiotics through fermented foods including yogurt, kefir, sourdough bread, green olives and sauerkraut. Prebiotics are fermented by the bacteria in your gut, stimulating the growth of those bacteria. Sources of prebiotics include bananas, soybeans, wheat, asparagus, garlic, onions, and legumes.

Choose foods sources high in antioxidants

Including vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin A, and selenium, and foods that produce an anti-inflammatory effect, such as those high in omega-3 fatty acids. See below for food sources of each:

    • Vitamin C: kiwi, strawberries, red peppers, broccoli, kale, tomotoes, oranges, potatoes
    • Vitamin E: oils and nuts
    • Vitamin A: eggs, milk, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, spinach, broccoli
    • Selenium: seafood (tuna, oysters, clams, halibut, shrimp, salmon), noodles, whole wheat bread, pork, beef, chicken
    • Omega-3 fatty acids: fish (salmon, sardines, oysters, trout, tuna), walnuts, flaxseed oil, canola oil, soybean oil

What’s most important to remember is that it takes a variety of foods to promote a healthy immune system AND to support mental health. There is not one food that does the trick, but a diet that is sufficient in energy and well-balanced to provide all of these nutrients.

I’m wishing you all health and safety during these crazy times of unknowns and fears. Use your diet as a way to take care of yourself this and every season.