After Cancer articles address topics for those in survivorship. This month, dietitian Mindy Athas shares ways to lower inflammation and improve the immune system through nutrition for general good health.
Inflammation is linked with healing when it’s short term or acute, like with a skin cut, but chronic or long-term inflammation can wreak havoc on your immune system, making you vulnerable to illness and disease.
Imagine the immune system like first responders. They can only tackle so many calls at once and need time to regroup and recover after a big emergency. Think of cancer or any longer-term illness like an extended emergency; the body needs some rest and relaxation, which is what this time of year is all about! Instead of indulging in cookies, try upping your fruit and veggie intake this holiday season. Plant-based eating is linked with lowering inflammation and improving the immune system, making your first responders stronger, fortified and ready for any new emergency.
Veg Out: Eating at least two to three cups, or fistfuls, of vegetables each day helps ensure nutrient needs are met. Veggies provide vitamins, minerals, water and fiber. Choose a variety and include bright and dark colors to get more antioxidants and phytochemicals. Think omelets filled with sautéed onions, garlic, spinach and peppers for a hearty breakfast, dark green leafy lettuce mix tossed with shredded carrots, cucumbers, broccoli and mushrooms for lunch, and roasted cauliflower, yams and eggplant with dinner. Throw vegetables at your diet to improve it in many ways. Cooking is as easy as steaming frozen veggies in the microwave, roasting in a 350-degree oven on a foil-lined cookie sheet, or sautéing in an oil-sprayed pan. Or buy pre-chopped raw veggies and dip into hummus, guacamole or salsa instead of chips.
Get Fruity: Fruit does contain sugar, but it is wrapped in a fiber-and-water-rich package that makes the body work to get that sugar. Fruits are nutrient powerhouses, rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals not found in other foods. Adults should choose one to two fruit servings each day. Pop some berries into oatmeal or yogurt for breakfast, toss tomatoes and avocado slices into your sandwich, swap out your ice cream for a fruit bowl dessert or try dried fruit without added sugar as a snack alternative. Buy fruits in season and canned or frozen versions, without added sugar, the rest of the year. Oranges and apples travel well, so pack them in your bag for car trips. Peel and freeze bananas to add to smoothies or make fruit ice cubes to liven up your water.
Fiber Up: Learn label-reading for any packaged foods and drinks. Start with the nutrition facts panel, which gives the servings per container and the serving size; this is important, so you know what the food manufacturer states is the serving size for that item. For instance, if the serving size is one cup and there are four servings per container, if you eat two cups you must multiply the facts panel by two.
Check out the dietary fiber and choose foods with at least three grams per serving. This means the food contains an adequate amount of fiber naturally or fiber has been added. Either way, fiber is beneficial to health in multiple ways. Ancient humans are estimated to have eaten 50 to 100 grams of fiber each day! Our modern society impedes fiber intake, but our bodies still need it. Current guidelines recommend 25 to 36 grams each day for adults. Besides packaged grains, breads, cereals, crackers and other carbohydrates, fiber is found naturally in fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Choose beans, peas or lentils at least once weekly, toss seeds into salads, sauté nuts into cooked dishes or make a homemade trail mix with nuts, seeds, oats, low-sugar granola and dried fruits without added sugar. Try different types of hummus, peanut or other nut and seed butters, mashed beans, lentil soup or edamame.
Give Fat a Chance: Healthy unsaturated fats have many health benefits, including lowering inflammation. Choose carefully and limit portions if you tend to overindulge. Extra virgin olive oil has antioxidants and can help lower risk for heart disease; use it as your primary fat. Cook with it at a lower temperature or use lighter versions for higher heat dishes.
Avocados are a high fiber fruit filled with healthy unsaturated fats; use in salads, on toast with a sprinkle of sesame seeds and cumin, or chopped up with tomatoes, onion, garlic and extra virgin olive oil for guacamole.
Other good fats include olives (just watch the portions since they are high in sodium) and tree nuts like almonds, cashews, pecans, pistachios and peanuts. If you use nut butters, keep the portion to about two tablespoons. Omega-3 fatty acids also lower inflammation and can be found in fatty fish, seafood, green herbs like basil and oregano, algae and seaweed (think sushi rolls), and seeds like pumpkin, chia and ground flaxseed.
Consider grass-fed meats and pastured , free-range or organic eggs and dairy. When animals eat grass, they get more omega-3s in their bodies. Many foods are also fortified with healthy fats; try extra virgin olive oil or avocado mayo, omega-3 eggs or juice.
Feed the Bugs: You have a whole universe living in your gut! The microbiome is a collection of organisms that help us stay healthy. It’s important to eat some fermented foods to maintain the gut integrity, so add some yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles and fermented soy like tempeh or miso soup. Eating a serving of fermented foods daily helps your gastrointestinal tract and brain, can help with weight maintenance and can improve mood. But you must feed them; they love fiber, so remember to eat your fruit, veggies, nuts, beans and other fibrous items each day.
Other Antioxidants: Tea, especially green and black versions, can help lower inflammation. Aim for a few cups each day, trying different versions such as matcha or those with vanilla, added flowers or herbs like lemon and ginger. Ask your provider if you need to limit caffeine intake. Soy foods like soy milk, edamame or soybeans, tempeh and tofu also have health benefits, so add up to three servings per day if you like.
Get Moving: Remember to get daily physical activity and exercise like walking, stretching, yoga moves or wall and chair exercises. Set an alarm to get up and move or stretch every 30 to 60 minutes if sitting most of the day. Adults should aim for a goal of 30 minutes each day of light to moderate physical activity. Learning to manage your stress, especially at the holidays, is a gift you give yourself. Try some deep breathing, acupuncture, Reiki, massage or guided imagery. Dream therapy, music, alone time and self-care are ways to lower cortisol and improve your immune system. Don’t forget to sleep in a dark, cool room for at least seven hours each night. Dream of sugarplums dancing and know you are making strides toward a healthier 2021.
Mindy Athas, R.D.N., C.S.O., L.D.N., is the outpatient dietitian nutritionist and certified specialist in oncology nutrition for Carroll Hospital’s Tevis Center for Wellness and the William E. Kahlert Regional Cancer Center.