While it's important that we're always proactive about taking care of our immune system, if there is any time of year when we tend to think about it more than usual, it's right when the fall season arrives. Cold weather has something to do with it. Cold and flu cases spiking have something to do with it. Wanting to make sure that we stay well enough so that we can enjoy some holiday time off probably plays a role in it too. And while things like rest, exercise and not smoking all help to keep our immune system healthy and strong, it's important to know how much diet plays a part in all of this too.
So, in the spirit of making sure that you keep as much bacteria and fungi and as many parasites and viruses from invading your system in the upcoming months, here are 10 eating habits that could play a role in actually weakening your immune system, if you're not careful.
Wanna hear something crazy? Although men are only supposed to consume somewhere around nine teaspoons of sugar each day and we are to eat no more than about six, the average person takes in a whopping 22 teaspoons which is roughly 350 more calories more than we need. Yes, it's a given that too much sugar can cause you to gain weight and potentially trigger diabetes; however, a lot of sugar in your system can also lead to heart disease; high blood pressure and cholesterol; liver disease; cavities; poor sleeping patterns; low energy levels; mood swings and bodily inflammation. And while inflammation is actually your immune system's way of responding to infections or injury, I'm pretty sure you can see how your body being in a constant state of inflammation can actually weaken your immunity over time (check out "Ever Wonder If You've Got A Low-Key Sugar Addiction?"). That's why it's important to avoid the kind of things that could cause this to happen — sugar is one of them.
A Hack for Eating Less Sugar: Eat more "healthy fat" foods like avocados, nuts, salmon, eggs and olive oil. They will help to replace excess sugar in your body. They can also keep you feeling full longer so that you can avoid random sugar cravings more easily.
It probably comes at little surprise to you that another thing that we tend to overdo is our sodium intake. While reportedly we're only supposed to take in somewhere around less than 2,300 mg of it each day (which is roughly just a teaspoon of salt), most of us are sitting at around 3,400 mg, if not more. Although sodium is a nutrient that helps our nerves and muscles to function properly as it also aids in balancing the fluids in our system, too much of it can result in frequent headaches; constant urination; high blood pressure; stomach ulcers; bloating; constipation and inflammation. Not only that but some health experts believe that a lot of sodium can also slow down how your immune system responds to issues within your gut; since 80 percent of your immune system is housed there (check out "80% Of Your Immunity Is In Your Gut. Take Care Of It Like This."), well, that can't possibly be good.
A Hack for Eating Less Sodium: Flavor more of your homemade meals with citrus fruits and fresh herbs. The fruits will offer a sweet-n-sour tang that will make the desire for salt less necessary. Herbs typically make dishes taste "richer" so that extra sodium is not required.
3. Fried Foods
I've been living in the South for most of my life, so fried foods are like the unofficial state flower here or something. Still, it's something that has to be consumed with complete moderation because fried chicken, fried fish, French fries — anything that was prepared by frying it in oil — has a way of clogging arteries, packing on pounds and even causing cancer.
As far as your immunity goes, fried foods are loaded with molecules that are known as advanced glycation end products (AGEs). When these get too high, they can trigger inflammation and damage your body's cells as well. Not only that but a lot of fried foods have an additive in them called tert-butylhydroquinone (tBHQ). If you've got a flu and you're trying to fight it, this additive can actually weaken your immunity; that makes getting over this kind of virus so much harder to do.
A Hack for Eating Less Fried Foods: This one may be obvious but the healthy alternative to frying your foods is to bake them. Or shoot, even using an air fryer. There's less trans fat (something that is hard for your body to break down and can lead to health-related issues such as heart disease and diabetes) that will go into your system, plus you'll be taking in less oil by going these routes too.
OK. So, what the heck are emulsifiers? Probably the easiest way to describe them (at least as far as food is concerned) is they're chemical additives that make it possible for one kind of liquid to suspend itself in another. Examples of this would be foods like ice cream, margarine, salad dressing, shortening and even processed almond milk. The reason why these can pose a potential threat to your immune system is they have the ability to damage your intestinal barrier which can lead to inflammation and even cause a chronic disease diagnosis over time. Emulsifiers can also reduce the amount of "good bacteria" that's in your gut; when that happens, it's easier to experience an upset stomach, sleep issues, bloating, a yeast infection, low energy and other health-related concerns.
A Hack for Eating Less Emulsifiers: The way to eat less additives is to consume more fresh foods. Homemade smoothies instead of ice cream; butter instead of margarine; olive oil and herbs instead of salad dressing; coconut oil instead of shortening and oat milk instead of almond milk (because some of the best brands of oat milk are only made up of oats and water). By the way, when it comes to milk and milk alternatives, one of the best ways to avoid emulsifiers altogether is to look for "carrageenan" on the label. If that is mentioned, pass on it. That's a clear sign that there are some emulsifiers in the product.
5. High-Refined Carbs
Stuff that is generally categorized as being "white foods"? Yeah, your immune system doesn't need a lot of those. White bread, white rice, white pasta, pastries and a lot of pizza dough are examples of foods that have been processed to the point where very little nutrients are in them. As a result, those carbs can quickly turn to sugar in your system which results in a spiked blood sugar level, potential inflammation and more free radicals floating around. This ultimately leads to oxidative stress which can result in heart disease and even various forms of cancer, not to mention the many things that sugar can do which we've already explored.
A Hack for Eating Less Refined Carbs: In short, when it comes to the white stuff, a good alternative are foods that are made with whole grains like whole grain flour, bread and brown rice. They've got all parts of the grain seed in them — endosperm, germ, and bran — which makes eating whole grains so much healthier for you.
6. Not Enough Vitamin D
Did you know that 42 percent of the population is considered to be Vitamin D deficient? That sucks because Vitamin D is the nutrient that boosts weight loss; reduces depression-related symptoms; strengthens bones and muscles; treats hypertension; helps to prevent type 2 diabetes; fights heart disease and the flu and also helps to fight viral infections such as the flu and even coronavirus while keeping inflammation down.
So, if you're not spending at least 30 minutes outdoors on the daily (you know, so that you can get some Vitamin D from the sun) or taking a supplement with Vitamin D in it, make sure that you're intentional about eating more foods that are filled with it.
A Hack for Getting More Vitamin D into Your System: If you're concerned about whether or not you're getting enough Vitamin D into your body, next time that you go grocery shopping, be sure to get some mushrooms, eggs, orange juice, rice or coconut milk, fortified yogurt, salmon and tuna. All are high in this particular nutrient.
7. Not Enough Omega-3
OK, so here are some pretty clear signs that you don't have enough omega-3 in your system — your skin hair and nails are dry and brittle; you have trouble getting or staying asleep; you experience joint pain or leg cramps; you've got a lot of earwax; your allergy-related symptoms are flaring up; you're having a lot bleeding and/or blood clotting during your period or your immune system is basically shot to hell. Yep, another thing that can weaken your immunity is not eating more omega-3s (fatty acids that are considered to be "good fats") because they actually have anti-inflammatory properties in them that are able to strengthen your immune cells. So definitely be intentional about eating foods that contain lots of those (or that you take an omega-3 supplement) more often.
A Hack for Getting More Omega-3 into Your System: Foods that have a lot of omega-3 in them include basically any kind of fish or seafood, chia seeds, walnuts, seaweed, kidney beans, avocados and Brussels sprouts.
8. Not Enough Fresh Foods and Veggies
If you're someone who leans towards buying a lot of canned fruits and vegetables, make sure that they are packed in their own juices instead of syrup or brine. And even when they are "in their own stuff", still purchase them sparingly (if you can) because canned foods can sometimes have a bacteria known as Clostridium botulinum which can cause botulism which is a very serious type of illness. Besides, when it comes to fruits and vegetables, fresh really is always best. That's the best way to get the most nutrients, fiber and even water from those kinds of foods. Plus, since fruits and veggies are loaded with antioxidants and those are the compounds that help to strengthen your immune system, fight off free radicals and aid in suppressing bacteria, viruses and inflammation, definitely an apple (and some spinach) a day can help to keep the doctor away (by the way, if you want to store up on produce yet you don't know how to increase its shelf life, check out "12 Ways To Make Produce Last Longer").
A Hack for Getting More Fruits and Veggies into Your System: The main point to keep in mind here is that it's best to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables when they are in season because that's when you can get the most vitamins and minerals out of them. Some guides that will help to point you into the right direction are located here, here and here.
9. Not Enough Water
When you get a chance, check out "10 Overlooked Signs That You're Dehydrated". Since your body is made up of over 60 percent water, of course, you need to consume a consistent amount of it in order for your body to function, just as it should. As it directly relates to your immune system, not getting enough water can prevent toxins from flushing out of your body. Plus, water helps to bring oxygen to all of your cells which ultimately supports and strengthens your organs. It really is one of the simplest and most profound ways to benefit your immunity, long-term.
A Hack for Getting More Water into Your System: If water is so not your thing, I get it. Try making some of your own infused water (Taste of Home has several recipes that you can try here) or drinking some sparkling water with a few drops of lemon, lime or your favorite fruit juice in it. Both options can make water less boring which makes it so much easier to consume.
10. Fast Food
I don't know if anything expresses the reason why "haste makes waste" is so true more than fast food does. In fact, it's so unhealthy that I wrote an entire piece on why a couple of years ago entitled, "Why You Should Consider Leaving Fast Food Alone". Since the piece breaks down several reasons why fast food works against rather than for your immune system, for now I'll just say that a huge problem with it is it's got so much of what this article says is not good for you in it. So, while sitting in a drive-thru might initially seem convenient and maybe even delicious, if you're trying to boost your immunity, the "less is more" approach really is the right one to take.
A Hack for Eating Less Fast Food: A lot of you are probably going to roll your eyes yet that doesn't make what I'm about to say any less true. If you want to eat less fast food, cook more often. It's healthier, it's cheaper (in the long run) and it's definitely a great and truly effective way to show your immune system some love. I'll even help you out with a few cooking tips. Check out "10 Hacks That Can Make Cooking Easier (If You Hate To Cook)", "15 Ways To 'Prep & Eat' Foods Differently Than You Currently Do" and "Who Knew? 15 Foods You've Been Eating (Or Preparing) The 'Wrong' Way." Enjoy!
For more wellness, self-care, and healing tips, check out xoNecole's Wellness section here.
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