Each year as winter approaches we gear up for any potential illnesses such as colds that might come our way, but this year with a pandemic surrounding us, we are now more than ever, thinking about protecting our immunity and taking care of our health. For pupils, a well-balanced diet containing nutrients that help support the normal functioning of the immune system is critical. There are various nutrients that help to support the immune system, but it is important to remember that no nutrient alone will stop us from becoming ill, however many nutrients do influence the body’s ability to fight infection.
Fruits and vegetables like oranges, peppers and leafy greens contain the plant form of vitamin A which supports cells in the immune system, while foods containing vitamins B6, B12, B9 (folate) and the mineral zinc help to produce new immune cells. Vitamin C, found in citrus fruits, green vegetables and tomatoes, helps to maintain healthy skin which is our external barrier to infection. Other minerals such as iron, copper and selenium are also known for supporting our immune cells and strengthening our response to infection.
Studies have shown that low levels of vitamin D are associated with a reduction in our immune response. Our main source of vitamin D is created from sunlight and unfortunately this year, because of lockdown, some of us might have had less sunlight than usual. We can boost our vitamin D levels from foods we consume such as eggs, oily fish and fortified breakfast cereals, whilst also considering vitamin D supplementation (around 10 micrograms a day) to ensure we are having enough vitamin D to support our immune system.
We mustn’t forget that our gut microbiota also plays a role in supporting our immune system and is influencing our mental health via the gut-brain axis. Avoiding highly processed foods and consuming a wide variety of fibre-containing plant based foods such our fruits, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains is beneficial, not only physical health, but mental health too.
As we know, a well-balanced diet alone will not maintain a strong immune system and our wellbeing; incorporating regular exercise, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and lowering stress levels are all factors that influence our physical and mental health. Taking enjoyment from the food we consume is important for increasing our happiness too, therefore pupils being served delicious, well balanced meals can enjoy eating whilst also having the confidence to know they are consuming a diet that can help protect their immune system.