Healthy Diet Is Key to Your Family’s Strong Immune System

Right about now, we are all wondering how to give ourselves and our kids a strong immune system. We share some expert advice from a registered dietitian nutritionist with Milk Means More.

For your family’s best health, especially during cold and flu season, a strong immune system is super important. Certainly, during the coronavirus pandemic, families ask what they can do despite the ongoing threat. There are several ways your family can build and maintain a strong immune system, says Sandra Sellers, RDN, Youth Wellness and Sports Nutrition Manager with Milk Means More.

“Particularly during the winter months, as we are spending a lot of time indoors, there are a lot of germs going around,” Sellers says. “In addition to COVID, there are other viruses we are trying to fight off. The good news is that by utilizing some small, simple tools — such as a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, managing stress as much as possible and getting plenty of sleep — that you can use to make sure your bodies stay as healthy as possible.”

Sellers is mom to two kids and says she loves nothing more than exercise that works for her whole family. (YouTube exercise and movement videos with her 4 year old top the list!) When the weather cooperates, they love to get outside for walks and playtime in the snow, too.

Frequent sickness, fatigue, tummy troubles, feeling physically tired and not 100% a lot of the time could all be signs that the body isn’t fighting off illness as well as it could, Sellers says.

The good news is that with careful attention to diet, your family can reverse these low-grade blahs and keep them away, too. “A strong immune system helps us get well more quickly and can reduce the severity of symptoms if we do get sick. You want those immune cells to fight faster and more efficiently,” says Sellers.

Well-balanced diet for a strong immune system

“Really, the answer to everything is a well-balanced diet,” Sellers says. She suggests following the simple MyPlate plan at myplate.gov. “MyPlate recommendations are really key. In particular, focus on nutrient-dense foods which offer vitamins, minerals and proteins that can help boost immunity.”

Sellers says that only 2 in 10 Americans get the recommended servings of fruits, vegetables and dairy every day — but your family can meet the goal simply by selecting colorful fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy foods at every meal.

The different colors of fruits and veggies are signals to the nutrients they provide: “Orange and red offer vitamin C, leafy greens have vitamin K, but the key is having a variety,” Sellers says. “Don’t just eat one color. Mix it up and select a rainbow of foods.”

What if your child isn’t so keen?

Kids don’t always understand the connection between a well-balanced diet and good health, so modeling healthy choices and being sure to offer a variety of foods is important. Other than that, it’s not necessary to make a big deal about “cleaning your plate,” Sellers says.

“You can say ‘here are some vegetables, maybe you can give them a try,’” she suggests. “But getting your kids involved in the preparation is a great way to get them interested. At home, I have some safety knives for my 4 year old and she loves to cut up zucchini and peppers.”

Also, try different ways of preparing your veggies. “Steaming, baking or air frying, which is super popular right now. All of these are ways to change the texture,” which might be helpful if you have a child who doesn’t like the sensory feel of vegetables prepared a certain way, she says.

Don’t forget dairy

“From an immunity standpoint, vitamins A and D, plus zinc and protein are key in building your own personal defense system because it needs those ingredients,” Seller says. Dairy is an easy way to get all of these in one food.

“Offer milk to your kids with every meal to make sure they’re getting in their recommended servings every day, but other than that, you can mix it up. Kids love yogurt parfaits and smoothies, which are both great for including fruits, too. Most kids love cheese by itself or in tacos and pizza,” Sellers says.

The whole healthy picture

In addition to building a strong immune system, a well-balanced diet may boost energy, help encourage a healthy body weight or aid mental clarity for you and for your kids.

It’s often overlooked, but brain health is a big part of physical health because healthy brain cells work to support the whole system. “The brain and the gut, and all of our body systems are connected,” Sellers says. “If your gut isn’t healthy, it isn’t going to be able to support the health of the rest of your body. Also, there’s very little sun in Michigan in January, and seasonal depression can be a huge issue for so many of us. Having a healthy, balanced diet really helps us combat that, too.”

And really, who couldn’t use a little more physical and mental health right now?

“It’s really important to get the nutrients you need to support overall health, and MyPlate is there to help when you might be feeling stuck,” Sellers says. “It’s about the whole picture: diet, exercise, even getting outside when it’s cold for that fresh air, nature and as much sunlight as possible. It just makes you feel better all over.”

Learn more about your family’s health, immunity and a well-balanced diet at Milk Means More. Visit milkmeansmore.org.

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