Casey Seidenberg is the co-founder of Nourish Schools, a D.C.-based nutrition education company and a contributor to On Parenting.
Updated Dec. 23: This post has been revised to clarify the amount of sugar consumption needed to suppress the immune system, and to give a better description of how dairy can affect the body’s mucus production.
In grand third-grade fashion, my older son looked at me with panicked eyes and said with emphasis on every word, “I. Can. Not. Get. Sick.” He then went on to remind me of his upcoming sports schedule as if it was new to me, which of course it is not, as I will be filling his water bottle, finding his mouth guard, doing the driving, and trucking the baby along to every game. Happily, of course.
Because he was genuinely worried that he would miss a game, I sat him down, corralled Son 2 onto the couch and reminded them of all the things they can do this time of year to keep from getting sick. Yes, believe it or not, they have heard this before.
What to eat to prevent illness in the winter:
1 Limit refined sugar. Consuming an excessive amount of sugar can suppress our immune system by causing a 50 percent drop in our ability to fight off bacteria and germs, studies have shown. This immune-suppressing effect of sugar can start less than 30 minutes after digestion and may last for five hours. So when your children beg you for an extra candy cane or five, imagine their immune systems slowing to a crawl and letting all those germs take over.
2 Increase healthy fats. Just as the ground outside dries out and cracks as the air looses moisture, so do our bodies. Our skin dries, our lips chap and our digestive tracts get dry, which causes our bodies to produce more mucus. Where there is mucus, there are colds and flu. To prevent this, hydrate from within by consuming more healthy fats such as the omega-3s found in salmon, walnuts and flax seeds. We love Walnut-Crusted Fish Fillets (find the recipe at washingtonpost.com/recipes). Slice them into fish sticks if your child will eat more this way! And always have a bowl of raw nuts, pistachios or pumpkin seeds on the table for easy snacking.
3 Add onion, garlic and ginger to everything! These are natural immune boosters that I even add to my homemade baby food. Most winter soup recipes include onions and garlic, so whip up warming soups for your family dinner. A little crushed ginger can be added to anything, including your baked goods, to give them a little extra flavor and you extra immunity.
4 Drink water. When our bodies are dehydrated, we are much more susceptible to colds. Water also flushes bacteria and viruses from our throats, stomachs and digestive tracts before they can settle and wreak havoc. Kids often unconsciously slow their intake of water in the colder months, so to prevent this, send your children to school with water bottles they can keep on their desk.
5 Be cautious with dairy. Many people have an allergy or sensitivity to the protein in cow’s milk, which can cause congestion and other allergy symptoms. Although mucus is a natural and important part of our airways, in some of these cases, an excess of mucus can become a growing medium for bacteria and viruses.
This is not the first time I have shared the concept that “food is medicine” with my boys, but interestingly, this was the first time they really seemed to take it to heart. I guess staying healthy for a hockey game is what it takes. I am just thrilled they are listening!