How to build a strong immune system

How to Build a Strong Immune System

How to build a strong immune system

We are going to talk about how to build a strong immune system by focussing on what NOT to eat. You want to ensure your immune system is ready to defend and protect you against any threats. Quite rightly, there is a lot of discussion about what nutrients and foods you should include in your diet but not often do you hear about what to leave out!


In short, foods to avoid are those which cause inflammation in the body. This will include foods that quickly raise blood sugar levels because of their high simple sugar content as well as the amount of sugar they contain. 


When we eat foods containing simple sugars little digestion is required and the sugar can be absorbed quickly into the bloodstream. When we consistently eat high sugar foods the result is the development of insulin resistance, fat storage and inflammation, exactly what we want to avoid. 


One of the main culprits is processed foods. People often think about sweets and soft drinks but they forget products containing hidden sugars. In other words, foods that you may not immediately think of as sugar-containing such as sauces, condiments, juices, so-called ‘healthy snacks’ and low-fat foods. Very often when fat is removed from food during processing, sugar is added to make the food more palatable.  


Some processing may be necessary to enable us to eat food. For example, we are not going to chew on wheat grain!  However, refined grains have a significant impact on blood sugar levels and inflammation. White rice has had its husk, bran and germ removed making it much easier to digest and therefore the simple sugar, glucose will be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly. 


During the processing of flour, the amylase inhibitor within wheatgerm is destroyed. This means that the carbohydrate will be digested faster. 


The key is to focus on eating carbohydrates that contain a higher fibre content and are more complex. These will be those that are as unprocessed and unrefined as possible; in other words, if you are going to eat rice choose wholegrain rather than white. 


One thing to note is that wholemeal flour is reconstituted white flour and hence like white flour does not contain the amylase inhibitor. The better choice of flour is stoneground flour where the amylase inhibitor remains intact.


So what about gluten? It has become very fashionable to avoid gluten-containing products. A constituent part of gluten is the protein gliadin. It is gliadin that has been shown to increase the protein zonulin in those suffering from coeliac disease. Zonulin makes the gut more permeable, often referred to as leaky gut, resulting in the instigation of an immune response and inflammation. 


Does that mean then that we should all avoid gluten? Obviously, for those suffering from coeliac disease, the answer is yes! For those that are sensitive to gluten, traditional sourdough bread may be an alternative. It is thought that bacteria produced in the fermentation process of sourdough production may digest the gluten. 


Gluten-free products are not healthy alternatives – just read the label to see a long list of ingredients that you probably can’t pronounce. Avoiding gluten without a diagnosis or intolerance symptoms may just mean you end up eating these gluten-free products without good reason.


Any bread is a carbohydrate and should be eaten in moderation within a balanced diet including protein and healthy fats. For everyone, baked products such as cakes, doughnuts, cookies, biscuits should be minimised because of their sugar content. 


Inflammation is not only caused by refined carbohydrates and added sugars but processed oils. Vegetable and seed oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids that are metabolised to inflammatory compounds. It is these oils that are found in processed food. 


You can do two things to reduce your omega 6 intake and reduce inflammation. Firstly minimise your consumption of processed foods and secondly do not cook with these oils or use margarine or oil spreads. Instead, for high-temperature cooking use saturated fats such as coconut oil, butter or ghee and for medium temperatures use a good quality olive oil.


So in summary, the main foods to avoid to build a strong immune system are refined and processed foods and oils that drive inflammation due to their impact on blood sugar levels and omega 6 fatty acid content. The easiest way to remove these foods from your diet is to focus on eating real food. 


We live in a world of convenience and although preparing fresh food and avoiding pre-packaged food may initially seem a hard task to achieve, there are solutions to help us. Batch cooking is a really good way of saving time and always having something on hand when you are short of time. 


Buying fresh foods, planning meals and recipes can be daunting when you have a busy life. Recipe boxes have become very popular and many of them will not be in many people’s budgets but there are some that are affordable, even for students! Once you realise that you have zero waste they may be more affordable than you realise!


Of course, there are always lifestyle actions to consider in addition to eating real food. Chronic stress and impaired sleep both result in inflammation. Hence it is important to make changes to your diet that are achievable and sustainable without increasing your stress levels. We don’t need to be perfect and we do need to enjoy life. 


Watch Heather in the kitchen preparing a meal using a Riverford recipe box


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