Giving your body a boost
Good foods can strengthen your immune system
With the long, dark days of winter upon us, active days and fresh healthy dishes of summertime seem a distant memory.
Over-indulgence in holiday treats and the desire to hibernate during cold weather can leave us feeling sluggish and blue. Flu season is yet another attack on our health and well-being.
Diet plays a significant role in our health. The beginning of a new year is a great time to find new ways to get back on track with healthy eating and strengthen our immune systems in the process.
Moria Felber, a Deer Park holistic health counselor and cooking instructor, encourages her clients to take charge of their health by building strong immune systems.
“What we eat influences our body’s immune system, and sometimes the answer lies in what we don’t eat,” Felber says.
“Vitamins and minerals help your immune system by building white blood cells,” explains Michelle Weinbender, a Sacred Heart Medical Center dietitian.
“You also need protein and fatty acids,” she says, so simply popping a vitamin isn’t going to ensure a strong immune system. Focus on fresh, healthy foods.
“My hobby is to find the most nutrient-dense foods and find interesting things to do with them,” says Felber.
For example, pomegranate kernels are high in antioxidants and can be tossed in a salad or added to smoothies.
She’s a fan of kale, which is high in iron and calcium and grows locally in the winter. It’s easy to throw into soups or stir-fry, or to put in the rice cooker while the rice is steaming.
Felber incorporates fresh and dried mushrooms into her recipes for their immune-boosting properties, and includes plenty of garlic, ginger and onions in her cooking for their anti-inflammatory and immune-strengthening qualities.
Go for color
“Buy something green, orange and yellow,” Weinbender suggests.
It’s easier to think of shopping in terms of color variety than it is to remember the healthy properties of each food, she says: “Eating a blend of different colors will guarantee a variety of nutrients.”
Just the visual appeal of oranges or kiwi slices can brighten up a winter day.
“Because of where we live, we have less access to fresh produce,” acknowledges Weinbender.
But frozen vegetables are an acceptable stand-in.
“I’m a big fan of frozen veggies,” she says. “You can add them to casseroles and soups.”
Weinbender recommends trying to include fresh, frozen, canned and dried fruits and vegetables to ensure the highest vitamin content.
Getting your children involved is a good idea, too.
“Let them pick something in the produce aisle, or let them spend $10,” suggests Weinbender.
Even if they don’t eat it, keep serving and exposing them to colorful, healthy food. Casseroles and crock pot dishes are a great way to try new vegetables, or to incorporate vegetables you might not eat alone.
Sunlight is one of the main sources of vitamin D, which our bodies need to keep us healthy.
Recent studies have shown that vitamin D deficiencies are more common than previously thought. Adequate levels are vital for proper immune system function, blood pressure regulation and bone health.
Food sources of vitamin D include fatty fish – like salmon, sardines and mackerel – as well as some cereals, milk and orange juice that are vitamin D fortified.
Consider adding some of these foods to your diet, especially during the winter, and consult with your doctor about taking a daily supplement.
It’s hard enough to beat the winter blues without subjecting yourself to mood swings.
“Eat so your blood sugar is balanced, and try to avoid refined sugar and white flour,” recommends Felber.
She suggests making sweets using raw foods, so you’re not depriving yourself but still minimizing blood sugar spikes.
One of Felber’s favorite raw foods for promoting a feeling of well-being is raw cacao, the source of chocolate. It’s rich in antioxidants, amino acids, magnesium and tryptophan, which promotes sleep and a feeling similar to falling in love.
Raw cacao nibs or powder can be incorporated into drinks, or mixed with coconuts or dates to make sweet treats.
Weinbender counsels her clients to snack on healthy foods and eat consistently.
“When you get hungry, your body sends neurotransmitters to your brain telling you to make choices about getting food,” she says.
“If you get too hungry, it can push you in the direction of bad choices – sweets or comfort foods,” she adds.
By keeping a level food intake, “you’re in charge of making choices.”
“Good bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidophilus adhere to the intestinal walls and help our bodies absorb nutrients and defend against bad bacteria,” Felber says.
A bout of the stomach flu or a course of antibiotics can upset the balance of positive bacteria. In order to rebuild helpful bacteria, Felber recommends a diet rich in fermented foods, such as kefir, organic plain yogurt, aged cheeses and miso, as well as brined sauerkraut, pickles and olives.
Healthy Hot Toddy
Courtesy of Moria Felber, Wild Thyme Kitchen, who says this drink is great when you feel something coming on or if you just can’t warm up.
2 cups apple cider
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon ginger, freshly grated
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 echinacea tea bag
1/4 cup spiced rum, optional
2 teaspoons raw local honey
In a small saucepan, combine cider, water, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cayenne, lemon juice and tea bag. Heat mixture on medium-low heat for 5 to 8 minutes.
Remove tea bag and divide evenly between two mugs. Divide rum between the two mugs if desired and sweeten with honey; stir and serve.
Yield: 2 servings
Asian-Sesame Steamed Kale
Courtesy of Moria Felber, who recommends serving it with wild Alaskan salmon.
½ cup chicken broth
1 bunch kale or other dark leafy green, ribbed and roughly chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon tamari
1 teaspoon toasted sesame tahini
1 1/2 teaspoons maple syrup
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a medium-sized sauté pan, heat chicken broth on medium heat. Add kale and garlic, cover, reduce heat and steam sauté for 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine sesame oil, tamari, tahini, maple syrup, salt and pepper; whisk well.
Kale will be ready when it turns bright-green. Strain the excess liquid from the kale and arrange in a serving bowl. Drizzle desired amount of sesame dressing over the top.
Yield: 2 servings.
From “Lite ’n Hearty,” Volume 1, published by the Heart Institute of Spokane.
4 to 5 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 cup carrot, cubed
1 cup celery, minced
1 cup eggplant or zucchini, cubed
1 teaspoon oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon basil
1 cup green pepper, chopped
3 ½ cups water
2 cups tomato puree
1 ½ cups canned garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
3 tablespoons dry red wine
1 cup fresh tomatoes, chopped
½ cup dry pasta
½ cup fresh parsley, chopped
Parmesan cheese, grated
In a soup kettle, sauté garlic and onions in olive oil until soft and translucent. Add 1 teaspoon salt, carrots, celery and eggplant. (If you use zucchini, add it with the green pepper.) Mix well.
Add oregano, black pepper and basil. Cover and cook on low heat for 5 to 8 minutes. Add green pepper, water, tomato puree, beans and wine. Cover and simmer 15 minutes.
Add tomatoes and remaining 1 teaspoon salt. Keep at lowest heat until 10 minutes before you plan to serve.
Heat to a boil, add pasta and boil gently until pasta is tender. Serve immediately, topped with parsley and Parmesan cheese.
Yield: 7 servings.
Macadamia Nut Fudge
Courtesy of Moria Felber.
2 cups raw walnuts
2 cups fresh dates, pitted
½ cup raw cacao powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
½ cup roasted or raw macadamia nuts, coarsely chopped
Combine walnuts, dates, cacao, vanilla and salt in a food processor and blend until mixture is smooth and balls up on the sides.
Transfer to a square casserole dish and press down with a flat spatula. Evenly distribute macadamia nuts over the top of the fudge and press again with spatula until nuts are lodged in the fudge.
Freeze for ½ hour before cutting into squares. Wrap with plastic wrap and store in the freezer.
Yield: 9 squares.