Nervous about your young athlete’s immune system as cold and flu season continues and COVID-19 is still a part of everyday life? You’re not alone. But luckily, there are some easy ways to boost your child’s immune health without turning to supplements or pills: Food can be a powerful tool in your efforts to keep your child healthy this year.
Here, TrueSport Expert Kristen Ziesmer, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in sports dietetics, shares her best tips for boosting immunity in the kitchen.
Educate your athlete
Ziesmer believes that when kids are educated about nutrition, it’s easier to encourage healthy eating. “I like to explain to kids how digestion works: when you eat something, it travels through your body and it gets absorbed into your whole system, so if you’re eating a bunch of junk food, that’s what is absorbed into your system and you won’t perform your best.” She recommends watching an explanatory video or two about the digestive system with your kids to help get them on board with improving their diets.
Improve the microbiome
Research has shown that immunity is linked to good gut health, which means a healthy gut microbiome. That’s right, not all bacteria are bad—and having a healthy balance in the gut can go a long way towards keeping your child healthy.
“There’s no one magic food, but you can start improving immunity by having a healthy gut microbiome,” Ziesmer says. “The bacteria in your gut affects so many different things in your body, and about 70 percent of your immune system is found in your digestive tract. We want to populate our gut with good bacteria, which comes from fermented foods. Eating those foods will raise the level of healthy bacteria in your stomach, which will boost your immune system.”
Ziesmer recommends gut-bacteria-boosting foods that are rich in probiotics, including sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and kefir.
Eat the rainbow—especially greens
“Eating a generally healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables will provide vitamin C, vitamin E, and different antioxidants,” Ziesmer says. So, make sure that most meals are colorful, with a wide variety of vegetables, whole grains, and clean protein sources. Green vegetables in particular have been shown to potentially boost immunity, and of course, are part of any healthy diet.
Sneak in greens whenever possible, whether it’s a handful of spinach in a smoothie, broccoli in a stir fry, or a little extra arugula on your athlete’s sandwich.
Add more fiber
Certain fibers—including those found in apples, oats, and nuts—have been shown to strengthen the immune system while decreasing inflammation. Meaning that yes, an apple a day may keep the doctor away! “Naturally occurring fiber found in fruit and vegetables also helps populate your gut with healthy bacteria,” Ziesmer adds. “Probiotics are the healthy bacteria, but prebiotics are the fibers from foods that the healthy bacteria eat. Apples, bananas, asparagus, oats, and Jerusalem artichokes are great prebiotic sources.”
Watch out for fast food
Fatty foods, primarily those that are deep-fried and high in sodium as well as fat, have been linked to worse immune health, so it’s critical to keep the overall food quality of your athlete’s diet high. The occasional trip to a fast food spot won’t destroy your child’s immunity, but it’s important to make a high-quality diet a priority.
“If your athlete is eating a lot of junk food, that’s obviously going to make the bacteria in the stomach more toxic rather than increasing the good bacteria,” says Ziesmer. “When eating out, you’re going to be consuming a lot more saturated fat, salt, preservatives, and additives, all of which can raise the level of inflammation within the body and counteract the effects of having the healthy bacteria in your stomach.”
Even picky eaters need to eat right
It’s tough to push a plate of vegetables on a picky eater, but it’s critical for their health. Ziesmer recommends starting off by just putting certain vegetable on their plate at dinner. “Some kids have to be exposed to new foods 20 times before they will even try them,” she says.
You can also increase buy-in by having kids help pick new recipes, grocery shop, and food prep. And when all else fails, Ziesmer says to disguise foods, adding spinach to smoothies or wrapping asparagus in prosciutto. Or, she recommends the classic banana, which is packed with fiber and other vital nutrients. “Most kids like bananas,” she says. “Put one in the freezer and it’s just like ice cream!”
Food can be one of the many tools you use to help keep your young athletes healthy, and it doesn’t have to be hard with these basic tips on eating for immune health.