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Food as medicine

Professor, nutrition expert shares what to eat to boost your immune system

It’s no secret that a healthy immune system is important, even outside of a global pandemic. Given the desire to limit shopping trips, and potentially scarce grocery store inventory, how can we get the nutrients our bodies need and avoid getting sick?   

Who better to ask than an expert in micronutrients? Emily Ho, the new director of the Linus Pauling Institute and a professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences, says that the immune system is complicated and that a healthy diet is critical to fighting off disease and infections.    

“There isn’t one food or one thing that is going to give you a total, healthy immune system,” she says. “Eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods is what’s best.”  

What does a balanced diet look like? Emily recommends eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables, choosing low-fat options, limiting sugar high fat foods, especially containing saturated fats, along with making sure to get the daily required intake of vitamins and minerals, particularly vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D, the mineral zinc and omega fatty acids, which are all well-known nutrients that defend our immune system.  

“You don’t have to be perfect all the time,” she says. “However, we’ve been in the pandemic for several months. Months of unbalanced eating can have both short-term and long-term consequences on your health.”  

When it comes to accessing food and taking fewer trips to the grocery store, Emily says ingredients don’t always need to be fresh, and that frozen and canned goods are great options. She suggests reading food labels with caution, because frozen foods often come with added salt, and says that canned fruit is better packed in water rather than sugary syrups.   

She also notes that food sources sometimes fall short of providing the body with all of the essential nutrients needed and that supplements can be taken to keep up. Vitamin D is a great example.  

“We get vitamin D from our food, but also from our skin with sunlight. Oregonians, in particular, have problems producing enough vitamin D, so they may need to consume more than what they find in foods and look at supplements,” she says.   

In addition to eating nutritious food, staying healthy during the pandemic also includes maintaining your well-being. For Emily, she’s bonding with her kids in the kitchen and taking advantage of the fresh fruit available in Oregon.   

“Just this past weekend, I picked 25 pounds of blueberries for our household, so we’ve been on a blueberry fix,” she says. 

This story is adapted from our “10 in 10” video series: 10 questions, in 10 minutes, with a college faculty member on a topic related to human health and well-being. Want more? Read the latest on Synergies and watch full episodes on the college’s YouTube channel. 

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