Fight Back Illness by Listening to Your Body
With only half of the normal flu vaccines available this year, and the high-risk group prioritized into an even higher risk category, people who have never had the shot before are worried about the upcoming flu season. But, even without the vaccine, there are steps that can be taken to ward off the flu before you catch it, and steps that can be done once the bug bites to lessen its severity.
Becky Hand, head dietitian at SparkPeople.com, a leading health and wellness site, and other health experts offer flu-fighting tips. Hand's tips are also included in the free guide offered by SparkPeople.com, Surviving Flu Season.
The Power of Produce
Plant foods contain natural disease-fighting compounds called phytochemicals and antioxidants, says Hand. These substances can enhance your immune system. Therefore, eat vegetables and fruits at least five times a day, preferably seven to nine times. Having trouble fitting them in? Hand recommends adding fruit to your cereal or oatmeal in the morning, packing baby carrots or raisins for a midday snack and using chunky salsa instead of snack dips, or try adding your favorite veggie to any pasta dish.
"With so many convenience produce items available today, it is much easier to find ways to get in your five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables," says Peggy O'Shea, a Boston-based registered dietician and a member of the Massachusetts Dietetic Association board of directors. "The key often really is convenience, and if you make healthier foods more accessible, you'll be more likely to get them in." O'Shea recommends looking for pre-washed, pre-cut vegetables in your grocer's produce section and keeping them on hand for snacking. "Keep carrot and celery sticks or broccoli or cauliflower flowerets on the shelf in the refrigerator. Then when you are hungry and looking for something to munch on you'll be more likely to grab them rather than something out of the cookie jar."
O'Shea also recommends the "stealth nutrition" approach. "Puree cooked carrots and add them to your tomato sauce for pasta – the colors blend perfectly and the mildly sweet taste will enhance the flavor," she says. "Add a package of defrosted, frozen chopped spinach to the ricotta cheese when making lasagna – not only will it add lots of great vitamins and make the ricotta easier to work with, but those so-called 'spinach haters' won't even notice the addition! Try making carrot muffins rather than chocolate chip, or try various soups that contain pureed vegetables with flavorful spices. Even those who wouldn't touch the vegetables raw will find a flavorful soup made with the same vegetables both filling and delicious!"
After Symptoms Occur
"Feed a cold, starve a fever?" According to Hand, the answer is neither. The best advice is simply to listen to your appetite because being neither hungry nor stuffed will get rid of a cold, flu or fever any faster. "Starving" an illness is a particularly bad idea. Intentionally restricting calories only makes it harder to recover from an illness.
"When you are sick, the best thing you can do is listen to your body," says O'Shea. "If you do not feel like eating, don't force yourself. But don't intentionally deprive yourself of food because you think it will help you to recover sooner; that won't happen. Try to keep your diet balance, avoid junk foods (with empty calories) and increase your liquids – good overall nutrition helps to keep your immune system at its best."
O'Shea says that many people find soft foods and liquids easier to tolerate when sick, so stick to soups, broth, juices, applesauce, etc. "These types of foods are also easier to digest so your stomach may feel better and your body can concentrate on fighting the flu," she says. "Also remember that when your nasal passages are blocked many foods won't taste good because your sense of smell is affected. Don't be surprised if many of your favorite foods don't taste quite right. One of the most critical things to do when you are ill, especially when running a fever, is to consume adequate amounts of liquids – that means at least eight to 10 glasses per day."
Have Some Chicken Soup!
Researchers have studied the possible benefits chicken soup may have on colds and flu. While they're not sure what the exact mechanism is, Hand says they believe that the benefit comes from something related to the smell or the taste of the soup. Eating chicken may help increase the flow of mucous and clear nasal passages. It will not help cure or shorten your illness, but it may help relieve symptoms temporarily.
Christina Pirello, host of the television series Christina Cooks, and the author of Cooking the Whole Foods Way (H.P. Books, 1997) and Cook Your Way to the Life You Want (H.P. Books, 1999), agrees that soup can help fight off the flu, though "it still contains saturated fat and all the accompanying health risks that go with it," she says.
Pirello recommends selecting organic chicken for your soup recipe. "The commercial varieties contain many chemicals and pesticides that can inhibit our immune function and work against the purpose of the soup," she says.
Other Ways to Battle the Bug
Hand says that a healthy lifestyle improves the immune system and resistance to disease. Getting seven to eight hours of sleep each night, eating a nutritious diet that includes breakfast, avoiding or reducing mental stress and not smoking will all help ward off the flu this winter.
Cathy Giessel, a nurse practitioner in Alaska, agrees that sleep, a good diet, breakfast and not smoking are key, but says extra vitamin C and avoiding sugar and junk foods help too. And "get moderate exercise and some fresh air every day," she adds.
Surviving Flu Season can be downloaded for free by going to www.sparkpeople.com/survival.