Besides the basics of hand washing, stress relief and sleep, registered dietitian Melanie Zook recommends many other natural defenses to weather the cold and flu season.
“As far as diet, you want to have that plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet, which means plenty of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and slowly digested carbohydrates,” she said. “The plant focus is because of all of those phytonutrients that plants can offer us.”
At her private practice, Fresh Start Nutrition, in Fort Mill, Zook stresses the importance of a colorful diet. She said the colors of fruits and vegetables come from their phytonutrients – so more colors equal more phytonutrients. And a diverse diet full of fruits and vegetables plays a huge part in sustaining what she refers to as the control center of the body – the microbiota.
“You’re probably hearing a lot about those probiotics you can get through food and drinks like yogurt, kefir – which is a drinkable yogurt – and kombucha, a fermented tea,” she said. “The big area of research right now is microbiota, which is the good bacteria that live in our gut. And the more diverse and numerous they are, the better.”
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The digestive benefits of probiotics have been known for years. However, Zook said recent research has shown that the body’s microbiota affects everything from mental health to immunity.
“We have more little bacteria in our body than we do our own human cells. We’re finding that they control way more than we ever thought,” she said. “That’s where diet comes in, because the bacteria feed on a diverse, fiber-rich diet of different fruits and vegetables – that’s what’s going to keep them alive and doing their job well for you.”
Prebiotics feed probiotics. Zook said some of the top prebiotic foods are onions, artichokes and garlic. She said garlic is also a good source of phytonutrients and gives a comfort quality when added to broth. But she steers people away from buying garlic supplements.
“You’re going to stink, but whatever, just eat the garlic,” she said.
As a dietician, Zook recommends sourcing nutrition from whole foods. She even encourages using what some cooks may refer to as waste to pack in a little extra vitamin punch.
“Any time you’re cooking something that’s going to leave those good nutrients in the liquid, don’t waste it. Go ahead and use it, make it into a stock,” she said.
Southerners have used this practice for generations to harness the goodness of collard greens. Known as “pot likker,” the greenish broth left in the bottom of the pot after cooking a pot of collards is sipped as a tonic or turned into a base for another dish.
These hearty, homemade broths are not only good for the body, but good for the soul. Zook said whether someone is trying to soothe a sore throat or fight off a cold, warm fluid-based meals, such as a bowl of chicken soup, provide warmth and comfort.
Another key to staying healthy is hydration. A priority during summer, hydration is often overlooked during the winter. But Zook said the body needs hydration year-round.
“You need half your weight in ounces of fluids,” she said. “Usually, you’re going to want to make sure those are calorie-free beverages such as water or green tea.”
Since a cold glass of water isn’t very appealing on a chilly day, Zook recommends having a cup of warm tea or warm water and adding some honey or fresh lemon.
Berry good for you
Elderberry syrup, a common cold remedy throughout history, has recently made a comeback. Zook makes her own by simmering dried elderberries on the stove top and adding honey, clove and cinnamon.
“A lot of people take it as a preventative now, as an immune booster,” she said. “People take a tablespoon a day and when they’re sick they increase the dosage.”
She sees herbs and spices as mini fruits and vegetables, packed with phytonutrients. She adds them to her foods whenever possible – ginger in her tea, cinnamon in her oatmeal.
But even Zook understands it’s sometimes hard to glean all nutrition from whole foods, so she makes a few exceptions.
“Bottom line is the recommendations remain the same every year – the fruits, the vegetables, the hand washing, the exercise, the hydration,” Zook said. “When it comes to supplements – Vitamin D3, probiotics and Omega-3 – because they’re anti-inflammatory.”
Stephanie Jadrnicek: firstname.lastname@example.org