I’ve been sick (actually ill, not just minor sniffle colds) more times in the last year than the last two to three years combined. Most of those illnesses can be counted in the last six months, and I’m getting desperately tired of it. So, new goal. Stay healthy. I’m already trying to improve my hydration habits, but there are many important aspects to a strong immune system and healthy mindset.
The most immediate health issue I plan to address is that of a healthy diet.
A healthy diet can boost energy levels and immune system response.
Photo by zirconicusso/ Courtesy Freedigitalphotos.net
According to a recent Consumer Report poll, 90 percent of Americans say that they are eating a healthy diet. 43 percent of the respondents also said that they drink at least one heavily sugared soda or coffee beverage a day, and about 25 percent said they tried to limit their sugar intake each day. According to the senior program editor for Consumer Reports Health, this habit can sabotage a healthy diet. There is also evidence of a discrepancy between what people think of as a healthy diet and what they consume day-to-day. 33 percent of the poll-takers reported that they were at a healthy weight, when in actuality the poll showed them to be either overweight or obese. In addition to its effects on your waistline, sugar inhibits the immune system, making it harder for your body to fight off infection, and caffeine can contribute to gastrointestinal problems, fatigue and general anxiety. I largely gave up soda eight years ago and haven’t been able to drink coffee for about six months, but it’s not difficult to believe that many of my friends and acquaintances are drinking more calories than they believe.
WebMD columnist Elaine Magee posits that there are five principle mistakes people make as they consider healthy eating. The one that I am most guilty of is number three: eating out more often than not. At my worst, the total bill comes to about a quarter of my entire monthly budget. It’s nearly twice my actual grocery expenses. With two jobs and a fondness for getting some exercise most nights (my second stay-healthy goal), I rarely feel like I have time to prepare anything, even on those occasions that I want nothing more than a home-cooked meal. I’ve recently started combating this with a yogurt-and-fruit smoothie after my tae kwon do workout. I like to use yogurts that have active cultures and either no sugar or only natural forms to give my body an extra helping of probiotics. This helps me give my body some protein and vitamins to start repairing itself and has the added benefit of opening up time for preparing a small-but-complete meal. Even if I have to thaw the meat first.
I’ve started trying to eat more fruits and vegetables (I aim for five full servings a day) to improve my vitamin and iron levels. The number one nutritional mistake people make is to buy all of their produce for a week at once. Because fruits begin to lose their vitamins as soon as they are harvested, buying fresh fruit to eat a few times a week will actually result in better nutrient intake. Frozen fruit can be a good option as long as there are no syrups added—fruit that is flash-frozen as soon as it is picked retains its nutrients for up to a year in the freezer.
For my personal health aims, I have my new frozen berries, peaches and mango smoothies, and I eat bananas, apples and citrus regularly. For higher antioxidant levels on a more regular basis I’ll try adding grapes, pomegranates and berries. For vegetables, I love the buttery taste of stir-fried or steamed zucchini, the crisp freshness of bell peppers, and there’s a mix of baby greens and herbs that I drizzle with homemade balsamic vinaigrette. I’m looking for more recipes for dark leafy greens (some of the least popular veggies on that Consumer Reports poll) to boost iron and vitamin D, if anyone has suggestions.
The number two mistake is buying too much processed food, an issue that I’ve been fighting with for about eight months now. The sodium, high fructose corn syrup and saturated fat that compose large portions of most processed foods are really things that I could do without. I spent a few weeks obsessively reading the ingredient lists of everything I bought regularly, but it’s still a bit hit-and-miss. I generally feel healthier and more alert when I avoid these foods, and I’m also more likely to have cravings for healthy whole grains, lightly herbed meat and fresh produce instead of chocolate, French fries and animal fat. But sometimes the processed stuff is what comes most easily to hand, so I’m trying to develop a store of physical-and-mental snacks that will actually contribute to my health rather than hobble it.
Breakfast is often the hardest meal for me to make count. I can generally get either fruit or whole grains, but I’m not very good at protein. Some recipes I’m thinking of are a variation on this yogurt-based Oatmeal Pudding Cake and these Oatmeal Apple Muffins with stevia in place of sugar. I will inevitably also consume these things later in the day. For a snack I’ll sometimes have a many-leafed salad with dill, cilantro, almonds and a bit of fruit, but I’m almost as likely to reach for a few pieces of dark chocolate. Maybe I’ll try this recipe for Feta Mushroom Pita Focaccia or the Shrimp Salad with Lemon Balm. A handful of almonds, walnuts or pecans can offer plant protein, vitamin E, B vitamins and dietary fiber ; avoiding the “good fats” that can be found in these nuts and foods like deep-sea fish and avocadoes is nutritional mistake number five.
I’ve been doing pretty well in the last few weeks. Fruits, vegetables, leafy herbs and lean meats cooked at home; I’m starting to think this may actually work. I was a little worried about the pesticides I’m probably consuming since I can’t afford to buy organic very often and the Dirty Dozen are among my favorites, but I recently heard of something that might help. Apparently, rinsing your produce with a vinegar solution (1 part vinegar to 3 parts water) can wash off both pesticides and bacteria more efficiently than scrubbing or dunking into a soap solution. Hopefully eating a healthier diet will help my body fight off whatever infection is coming next—I currently know of four people who are falling ill, and there’ll probably be more tomorrow.
Check back in the next few weeks for more information about getting healthy, being healthy and staying healthy with the help of foods, activities and herbs.