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Using Seasonal Fruits and Vegetables to Boost Our Immune System

By Kim Plessel, MSN, RD, LD

Oakdale ObGyn is a proud sponsor of the Maple Grove Farmers Market Power of Produce program, which inspires children to explore and come to love all things veggie. We are excited to partner with the Farmers Market because the it provides so many opportunities to nourish our health – a fit with our mission to support women in their efforts to be and stay healthy.

Over the past year, we’ve been talking about nutrition strategies to optimize your immune system and now we are sharing some creative ways to use seasonal fruits and vegetables and “put it into practice” ways to use the summer’s bounty to gain better health.

How to use food to support our immune system

How can the foods that we eat support our immune system? First, key nutrients help maintain the integrity of our skin and our digestive system, or gut. These are our first line defenses to the environment and any bacteria or viruses. Second, our diet supplies great construction materials for white blood cells and antibodies that are involved in our adaptive immune response to fight specific pathogens more effectively.

Seasonal helpers offer beta-carotene and vitamin C

Two key nutrients that are plentiful at your local Farmers Market are beta-carotene and vitamin C.

Beta carotene is the red-orange pigment found in many fruits and vegetables and helps our body form vitamin A. This vitamin was initially coined “the anti-infective vitamin” because it stimulates the production and activity of white blood cells. It is also important for our skin health.

At the Farmers Market, you can find beta-carotene in sweet potatoes, winter squash, dark leafy greens, carrots, bell peppers and cantaloupe. To help your body absorb beta carotene from plants – don’t shy away from healthy fats. If you take the time to build a colorful salad from market produce, you can add healthy fats to maximize your absorption. These include olive oil or vinaigrettes, hummus, or avocado — or simply using nuts or seeds. Chopping and heating these beta-carotene rich foods will also help improve absorption.

You’ve also likely heard about the importance of vitamin C. It is best known for its antioxidant activity, which helps protect the cell membranes of our healthy cells. Vitamin C is also important because it supports skin integrity. The recommended daily intake is 75 mg a day for adult females. If you are boosting your vitamin C intake, it only takes ~200 mg of vitamin C rich foods to saturate the body’s tissues. Consuming 5 fruits and vegetables a day will help ensure that you are consuming adequate vitamin C. Specific food sources that are good sources of vitamin C include:

  • Red bell pepper ~95 mg per ½ cup raw
  • Green bell pepper ~60 per ½ cup raw
  • Broccoli or Brussels Sprouts ~50 mg per 1/2 cup cooked
  • Strawberries ~49 mg per ½ cup

The Farmers Market provides us the opportunity to buy really fresh produce that is at its peak ripeness, which has the most vitamin C content. Since vitamin C is water soluble, you will also maximize your vitamin C intake if you eat these fruits and vegetables raw. When you cook these foods, just be sure to use quick heating methods and use as little water as possible because vitamin C will leach into the cooking liquid. Or – you can also get creative and drink your vitamin C by infusing your water or blending your produce into nutrient dense smoothies.

As a side note too, with the heat of summer, it is important to stay hydrated. Our bodies are ~60% water, so it is another important nutrient for our health. And, staying hydrated will support your body’s natural detoxification system.

Fortify gut health with fruits and veggies

In addition to key nutrients, we can also support our immune health by fortifying our gut health. So, when we talk about “gut health”, we’re really referring to is the gut microbiome.

We have trillions of microbes in our gastrointestinal tract – all different types of species. These microbes outnumber our cells 10:1. Every individual has a unique mix of species. Some of these microbes are symbiotic – which means they promote our health by working together. Others are commensal – which means that they just peacefully coexist. There are also pathogenic microbes that are detrimental to our gut health.

Specific to our immune health, researchers are continuing to study how the type and amount of microbes in our gut impact our health. While our intestines are deep within our bodies – we have to remember that our gut lining is still exposed to all of the pathogens, viruses, and bacteria from the outside world. As part of the digestive process, our bodies actively survey what we are absorbing. For this reason, ~70% of our immune system lies right on the other side of our intestinal lining so it can readily attack anything that may compromise our health. For this reason, a healthy gut microbiome is important for our overall immune health.

We are continuing to learn how our diet choices shape our microbiome. We can introduce a variety of helpful microbes through the foods we consume. Probiotic rich foods include cultured or fermented foods such as kimchi, pickles and sauerkraut, all of which is sold by local vendors here at the market or in most local grocery stores.

While many of us know about the importance of eating probiotic rich foods – it is important to appreciate that these good bacteria don’t survive long in our gut unless we feed them. There are several different strains of microbes that live in our gut. And – they are picky eaters. Likely you can relate if you are cooking for a spouse and children in your home. Everyone has an opinion on what should be for dinner. These microbes are no different. They love plant-based foods – but each strain or species has its own preferences. Right now – the average American has a lot of opportunity to better nourish their gut microbiome. These microbes want AT LEAST 25 grams of fiber a day. AND – they want variety. Your local Farmers Market is a good source for fiber and variety!

This summer, I encourage you to explore ways to increase the amount of plants in your meals and snacks throughout the day. Then – let’s start exploring different varieties of plants. The Farmers Market offers multiple opportunities to try new fruit and vegetables. When we nourish our gut microbiome, they pay us back ten-fold by producing anti-inflammatory compounds for our body. These are called postbiotics, which help to keep the gut membrane strong and calm inflammation in the body.

Good luck exploring the bounty of the season. You will support your immune health by adding colorful, diverse plants to your meals so have fun exploring!

For an appointment with dietitian Kim, call 763-587-7000. Many of her services are covered by insurance and we encourage you to check with your payer.