Fight against flu bug with healthy diet

161868190I’m trying to do all I can to avoid getting the flu this season. Is there anything in particular I should include in my diet that could help?

When it comes to avoiding the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best actions you can take are to get vaccinated with the flu shot; take everyday precautions against the spread of germs, such as avoiding contact with sick people and washing your hands thoroughly and often; and, if you get the flu, see your doctor quickly (within two days of becoming ill) and ask about taking antiviral drugs to treat the illness.

A healthy, balanced diet won’t prevent you from being exposed to the flu virus, but it can help boost your immune system to help you fight off the flu virus and other illnesses. Recently, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics issued a reminder about which nutrients are most often recognized as helping build immunity:

  • Protein plays a key role in the immune system’s patrolling white blood cells (called macrophages), which attack bacteria. Most Americans get plenty of protein, but often people cut back at this time of year to lose pounds they may have gained over the holidays. Be sure your diet always includes a good variety of high-quality protein sources, including fish and seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds (preferably unsalted).
  • Vitamin A helps keep the immune system regulated and keeps skin and tissues functioning properly in the respiratory system, as well as the mouth, stomach and intestines. Good sources of vitamin A include orange vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and red bell peppers, kale, spinach, apricots, eggs and foods fortified with vitamin A, such as milk or cereal (look on the label).
  • Vitamin C is a vital player in helping lymphocytes, another type of white blood cell, to fight against infectious microorganisms. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, including citrus fruit, red bell peppers, broccoli, tomato juice and foods (such as cereals) fortified with the vitamin.
  • Vitamin E, as an antioxidant, helps protect healthy cells from being attacked by the immune system and may help improve immune function in other ways. Good sources include spinach, peanut butter, sunflower seeds or oil, safflower oil, and foods fortified with vitamin E.
  • Deficiencies in zinc can impair the immune system. Good sources of zinc include lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.

Other nutrients may also play a role. The bottom line? Strive for a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lean protein to keep your immune system running smoothly.

Be aware of risks from eating sprouts

158197055I really miss topping my salads off with a handful of alfalfa sprouts. What makes them so unsafe?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that sprouts were ubiquitous at every salad bar you approached. Not so much anymore. They’ve even disappeared from some major grocery store chains after numerous outbreaks traced to sprouts in recent years.

The problem is in the way sprouts grow: Seeds need warm, moist growing conditions to sprout — exactly the conditions that illness-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli, need to thrive.

Even if there’s just a small amount of bacteria on or inside a seed, those cells can multiply to dangerous levels within hours in such conditions.

The irony is that raw sprouts have long been touted as one of nature’s most potent health foods. But as their popularity grew in the 1980s and 1990s, so did the reported number of illnesses associated with them.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were 34 outbreaks associated with sprouts between 1996 and 2010 — the most associated with any type of produce. In fact, sprouts were responsible for more than one-quarter of all produce-related outbreaks — more than those from melons, tomatoes or leafy greens.

The problem isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2011, nearly 4,000 people in Europe, primarily in Germany, became ill and 53 died from eating bean sprouts from a German organic farm contaminated with a rare strain of E. coli. Some of those people actually grew their own sprouts from seed — seed that originated from the implicated farm.

Although growers can take steps to reduce the risk from bacteria growing in sprouts, no method can absolutely be determined safe. Thorough cooking kills the dangerous bacteria, but few people cook raw sprouts.

The FDA says people most at risk from foodborne illness — children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system — should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts.

If you decide to eat raw sprouts anyway, the FDA offers these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature. Select crisp-looking sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, dark or slimy-looking sprouts.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at home. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 degrees F or below.
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use. Rinsing can help remove surface dirt. Don’t use soap or other detergents.

Boost nutrients, cut fat in recipes

159298758I’m looking for easy ways to make some of my recipes and meals healthier. Any ideas?

This is a great way to start the new year, and yes, there are plenty of ideas to increase nutrients and reduce fat and calories in the foods you prepare at home. Below are some favorites, primarily from Ohio State University Extension (see “Modifying a Recipe to be Healthier” at http://ohioline.osu.edu) and eXtension (see “Recipe Substitutions” at http://www.extension.org).

To reduce fat:

  • Use evaporated skim milk instead of cream.
  • Use 1/4 cup egg substitute or two egg whites in place of a whole egg.
  • In quick breads, muffins, brownies or cakes, substitute half or all of the oil, butter or other shortening with unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas or fruit puree. Note: Making this substitution will increase carbohydrates in the end product — something to be aware of if you have diabetes.
  • Use low-fat or nonfat yogurt in place of sour cream.
  • Use low-fat cottage cheese pureed until smooth or low-fat cream cheese in place of full-fat cream cheese.
  • Try lower-fat or nonfat versions of a variety of foods, especially milk, cheese, cream cheese, mayonnaise, salad dressing and margarine.
  • Use an air popper for popcorn.

To increase fiber:

  • Replace half the all-purpose flour in baked goods with whole-wheat flour.
  • Add oats or finely ground fiber-rich non-sweetened cereal to replace some or all of the bread crumbs in a recipe, or to the crust or batter when making desserts.
  • Add beans or barley to soups, stews and casseroles.
  • Add sauteed vegetables — cherry tomatoes, onions, spinach or zucchini, for example — to scrambled eggs.
  • Don’t peel apples, cucumbers, zucchini or potatoes before eating them or using them in recipes.
  • Choose high-fiber alternatives for cereal, bread and pasta — look at the Nutrition Facts labels.

To increase other nutrients:

  • Add cooked and mashed cauliflower to mashed potatoes, or add cooked chopped cauliflower to macaroni and cheese.
  • Add chopped spinach or zucchini to pasta sauce, soups and casseroles.
  • For salads, choose romaine, endive or other dark-green leafy lettuce instead of iceberg lettuce, and include baby spinach leaves.
  • Increase calcium by adding nonfat milk or dry milk to a casserole’s cream sauce or to cream soups.
  • Increase antioxidants by sprinkling hot sauce on foods. The capsaicin in it shows promise in anti-cancer studies, though it may take quite a bit to have a discernible effect.