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Does Your Diet Support a Healthy Immune System?

With respect to COVID-19, there are many food- and nutrition-related questions you’re probably wondering about: are there specific foods to boost my immune system? What should I stock up on (and what should I skip) at the grocery store? How can I stay healthy when I’m stuck at home all day with enticing snacks?

Before you jumpstart your food- and nutrition-related quarantine plan of attack, we recommend that you first take stock of your diet. Zipongo’s NutriQuiz can help you understand your current eating patterns and pinpoint where you can make positive changes. Each part of the quiz unlocks insights on where you might need improvements in your diet, how to incorporate healthy nutrients into your meals and why certain nutrients are especially important–like the ones that come from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean or plant-based proteins.

If you haven’t taken the NutriQuiz yet, take a few moments to take it now–we’ll wait!

After taking the quiz, we’ll map your eating habits against target levels and recommendations with NutriScore Essentials, which have been curated from leading nutrition sources in the academic and medical communities. The NutriScore Essentials include:

  • Focus on Balance & Nutrient Density: Fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits and balance them out with lean proteins and complex carbohydrates.
  • Learn from Our Ancestors but Rely on Science: Our bodies do better with real, simple foods–like our ancestors ate–rather than processed foods with many ingredients.
  • Personalize for Tastes, Biology, Timing & Location: Nutrition is highly individualized. Incorporate dietary preferences, daily habits, timing and location to drive positive health changes.

Now that you’ve unlocked your insights, we’ll give you practical recommendations to improve your eating habits in the following areas.

Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits

We recommend aiming to eat 5 servings of vegetables per day and 4 servings of fruit per day. Grocery stores and markets are still stocking their stores with fresh fruits and vegetables every morning, so make sure that your next grocery haul includes fresh produce that you enjoy. Frozen produce is also a great option–because the fruits and vegetables are flash frozen right after they’re harvested, they maintain their nutritional profile and flavor. Just make sure to choose fruits and vegetables that maintain their texture and flavor after a few weeks in the freezer; our chef offers these recommendations for choosing which produce to buy fresh and which to buy frozen.

If you’re looking for tips to add more vegetables to your diet, we have a few creative tips from dietitians, including adding them to baked goods, like zucchini bread, and mixing them into meats and sauces (these Italian Turkey Meatballs are packed with mushrooms). If you’re more of a beginner in the cooking department, we also have some easier suggestions for sneaking more veggies into your meals–simple swaps like adding zucchini noodles to pasta dishes and doubling the amount of veggies called for in a soup or stew recipe will easily up your vegetable intake.

Eat carbs with lower glycemic load

In short, the glycemic load is a measure that estimates to what extent a particular food will raise a person’s blood sugar levels (learn more about glycemic index and glycemic load). Foods with a lower glycemic load are generally healthier choices because they minimize spikes in blood sugar; low glycemic-index diets may also help you maintain your weight, control your appetite, and improve cholesterol levels.

It’s an excellent time to start adding more whole grains to your diet for several reasons: whole grains are relatively inexpensive and they’re shelf-stable. They’re also extremely versatile: enjoy quinoa at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with a Spiced Breakfast QuinoaQuinoa & Smoked Tofu Salad, and Chipotle Chicken Quinoa Bowl. If you’re looking to diversify your grains, try these five whole grains. For those trying to save time and money, check out our suggestions for using up leftover whole grains.

Focus on healthy fats

Healthy fats are important for a number of reasons: they help your body absorb certain nutrients, keep you feeling fuller for longer (a key component of snacks for when you’re working at home and don’t want to feel peckish in between meals), and are an essential structural component for many cells, tissues, and organs. A diet higher in healthy fats has also been linked to improved heart and metabolic health, a lower risk of cancer, and reduced inflammation levels. Plus, they taste great!

Focus on a mix of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats–these are fats that are liquid at room temperature and generally come from plant-based foods and seafood. Some ideas:

  • Try replacing butter in your cooking with olive or avocado oil
  • Swap out mayonnaise for tahini-rich hummus or avocado
  • Give these six recipes with healthy fats a try

Baking is another area to experiment with healthy fats: you can substitute less healthy fats like butter for mashed banana, pumpkin, or applesauce, which all maintain moisture, taste, and texture in most baked goods. These baking substitutions are especially helpful right now: baking is a kid-friendly and stress-relieving activity for quarantine.

Make sure you’re also getting your omega-3s, a specific type of polyunsaturated fatty acids that are well-regarded for the role they play in reducing chronic inflammation. Experts recommend eating at least two 3-ounce servings of fish per week; canned sardines and other fatty fish are great shelf-stable options for meeting those recommendations. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, turn to seaweed or algae, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, and edamame. 

Enjoy lean proteins; limit red and processed meats

Protein plays a vital role in healing and recovery–whether that’s following a tough workout or illness. Your protein needs depend on your age, activity level, overall health status and few other factors; in general, you should be aiming for a minimum of .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (that’s .36 grams per pound).

Fuel up with lean protein found in poultry, seafood, and plants. Plant-based protein is an especially great choice right now because it’s generally shelf-stable; experiment with some of our favorite plant-based proteins like tofu, beans, and lentils. While seafood won’t last as long, it’s still a great option if you find a deal at the market–just try to use it or freeze it within a day or two. If seafood is new territory for you, start out with these ten seafood dinners that you can make in under 30 minutes.

If you’re falling short on the recommended protein intake, you might consider a protein supplement; especially in the context of health, immunity, and not visiting the grocery store as much, it can be a shelf-stable option for ensuring you’re bridging that gap. Snacks are another opportunity to add protein into your diet; adding protein to a snack will make it more filling and satiating so that you don’t keep reaching for more.

Stay hydrated

Hydration plays several crucial roles in your body’s daily functions: it’s a vital material to every cell, it regulates temperature, it helps in metabolic and transport processes, it assists in removing waste from your body, and it lubricates your joints. But besides all that, maintaining good hydration status improves sleep quality, mood and cognition (key components of a happy quarantine!).

Goals for water intake differ from source to source, but in general, use your pee as a guide: if it’s the color of lemonade, or light yellow, you’re doing just fine. Don’t forget that unsweetened beverages also count towards your hydration goals, as do fruits, vegetables, soups, and other water-rich foods.

Luckily, since we’re all cooped up at home, you always have your faucet for easy water access. If you need some motivation, set up a hydration challenge with a friend or take an old water bottle and a sharpie and make hourly goals to hit (draw lines on the water bottle along with times to reach each of those lines by); sip through at least two 32-ounce water bottles per day.

Limit sodium; flavor with spices

The good news: you’re likely eating out less, which will automatically cut your salt intake down significantly. Cooking food at home gives you control over how much salt you add to your foods, whether that’s during the cooking process or after. While salt is necessary for seasoning a food during the cooking process (it affects the texture, moisture, and structure of many foods), you might find that you don’t need to sprinkle as much salt on a dish post-cooking as you thought. Taste your food before you add salt; if you think it’s necessary, add a small pinch, and make a goal to scale back your sprinkling slowly.

If you’re reducing your salt intake, you can add flavor with other ingredients. Aromatics, like onions and garlics, herbs, spices, and acid (try vinegar or citrus) are all great options for transforming the flavor of a dish. Take a look at our Low Sodium Recipes and experiment with fun ingredients like dried herbs, spices, and lemon juice.

The bad news: many processed foods are packed with sodium. Sodium is lurking in many pantry staples, including canned beans and soups, condiments, and salad dressings, as well as more surprising places like sliced bread and cottage cheese. Look for lower-sodium options at the store, but if pickings are slim, just account for lowering your salt intake elsewhere, and make sure to balance your salt intake with potassium-rich fruits and vegetables.

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