Food and Your Immunity

clinical nutrition Apr 10, 2020

Increase your antioxidants

Want to bulletproof your immunity? You need to stockpile those natural antioxidants (and not just the packets and tins of pulses!). When you supercharge this “antioxidant potential” you give your immune system a real boost. And, if you’re wondering ‘where have I heard about antioxidants before?’ they’re the things skincare companies tell you their anti-ageing moisturisers are full of so double win.

Why are antioxidants important?

Viruses and bacteria produce oxidants, which are reactive forms of oxygen that damage cells and age you faster. Simply, they are bad news. We’re also getting our fill of oxidants from eating chargrilled/ blackened foods or breathing polluted air, and maybe you’ve had a less than great diet over the years. Where you can end up is a situation in which you have too many oxidants and not enough antioxidants.

Revving up your antioxidant status at times like these is a really good idea. While vitamin C seems to get all the praise when it comes to immunity, there’s another molecule that is the under-recognised supporting actor who deserves the starring role – glutathione.

Glutathione – the master antioxidant

Glutathione is one of the most important molecules in the body – almost like a magic elixir of health. Too little of it and you’re at risk of developing one of the most feared health conditions facing us today, including stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.

If you’ve got good enough levels, that’s where the gold is…

But when levels are adequate or high, that’s when the magic happens. You’ll not only have protection from the conditions above, but you’ll have amazing energy, glowing skin, healthy detoxification, strong heart and brain function, and possibly even a longer life!

Glutathione is made up of three amino acids called cysteine, glycine, and glutamic acid (or glutamate). It’s often called the “master” antioxidant because it helps recycle all the other antioxidants in your body like vitamins C and E, as well as alpha-lipoic acid and CoQ10.

Research show glutathione primes the white blood cells of the immune system and helps them produce more infection-fighting substances so they can control both bacterial and viral infections.

Foods to increase glutathione

Eating the right foods to naturally increase glutathione will help keep you fighting fit. There are a small number of foods that naturally contain glutathione. These include asparagus, avocado, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, spinach, broccoli, garlic, chives, tomatoes, cucumber, almonds, and walnuts.

Some other foods contain the building blocks needed to make glutathione (they are the pre-cursors – the warm-up act); the foods containing cysteine and other sulphur-containing foods, and selenium.

Good foods to choose are onions, spring onions, shallots, leeks, kale, bok choy, rocket, spring greens, watercress, radishes.  Some spices such as turmeric, cinnamon and cardamom - have compounds that can also help to restore healthy levels of glutathione and its antioxidant enzymes.

Alpha Lipoic Acid – glutathione’s reloader

Alpha-lipoic acid (also called ALA) is a critical co-enzyme that helps to recycle many antioxidants, including vitamin C, E and also glutathione. It is well known for its anti-ageing effects on our cell’s energy factories, the mitochondria.

Good food sources of alpha-lipoic acid include: 

• Organ meats
• Beef
• Brewer’s yeast
• Broccoli
• Spinach
• Brussels sprouts
• Peas
• Tomatoes

Selenium – the building block of antioxidants

Selenium is an important trace mineral that is key in the production of glutathione (it also happens to be great for thyroid function so if yours is a little off, consider getting more of this antioxidant a double win). Good dietary sources of selenium include:

• Seafood
• Oysters
• Brazil nuts
• Eggs
• Mushrooms
• Whole grains
• Organ meats
• Dairy products


Why you need to get in more broccoli

In a pub quiz about food, broccoli would almost certainly be the answer. Why? Because it’s one of nature’s real superfoods. You’ll often find me extolling the virtues of these little trees in relation to women’s health, where it is an excellent detoxifier of oestrogen.

When it comes to boosting immunity, broccoli has good levels of antioxidants sulforaphane, lutein and zeaxanthin, which fight disease. It’s also packed with vitamin C, which is undoubtedly an important nutrient for immune function as well as all the vitamin K you’ll need in a day, and decent amounts of folate, vitamin A, potassium, phosphorous and selenium


Does it matter if I have to buy frozen veg?

I’m often asked this question in practice. In short, the answer is no. It might even be the case that frozen veg actually contains more nutrients than fresh. This is because once harvested, vegetables start to lose nutrients and antioxidants.

Frozen vegetables are usually 'snap-frozen'. This is a pretty instant freezing process that preserves nutrients. When cooked there's been a minimal loss of nutrients.


This is the perfect time to really get to grips with planning

There is such worry – hence the panic buying – that we will be left with practically nothing to eat. That may or may not be the case, but this is the ideal time to really look at planning what you and your family will be eating and when.

The work starts with a full audit of what you have in the cupboards, fridge and freezer.

Make 3 separate lists and re-order the cupboards, fridge and freezer if needed to make things easier to find.

  • Consider what you would need to add to these ingredients to have them be a whole meal. Be prepared to be flexible. We don’t know what food availability will look like. There might be an ideal extra thing to add and a ‘if I had to’.
  • Eat up the freezer – don’t buy more stuff until you eat up the stuff you have.
  • Start a habit of this audit being a regular job.
  • Be prepared for an emergency ‘use-up’ meal occasionally. This isn’t Instagram. It doesn’t need to look lovely.


Set yourself a meal planning challenge

Many people only think of what they are going to eat 5 minutes before they want to eat or, at best, on the way home from work. But you’ll find life so much easier if you stop seeing each meal as a one-night-stand.

We all know that, when you fail to plan, the chance of eating anything healthy goes out of the window. Now is the time that changes. And here’s another good reason. Planning your meals and snacks will help you make the best use of anything you have in the house.

I usually also add that planning helps you eat at home more often rather than relying on unhealthy takeaways or restaurant meals. Not sure how relevant that is in the current climate. (Save that thought for later).

Right now, suffice to say that planning – which includes thinking about how to make use of leftovers – means less food waste, less money spent, fewer trips to the shops.

Grab a free meal-planning challenge here

When you plan your weekly meals, consider that one meal can create leftovers for the next. Example, Sunday’s roast chicken can provide the meat for a simple but cheap pasta dish on Monday.

Plan the main meal first (usually the evening meal), then the others, plus snacks and treats.

Given that ‘I don’t have time’ is the most common reason I hear for not planning ahead, more imposed working from home or social distancing could fix that. And that these testing times, at least controlling what you family will eat can seem like a win.


If you are like the average person in the UK, you will throw away 19% of the food you buy – £50 per month wasted per household or £600 a year! If you commit to getting your family food planning sorted AND you use the time you would have had to commute to work (since very possibly you’re working from home) and the savings are even greater.

Croissant and latte, salad or sandwich plus crisps and drink for lunch, maybe a second coffee and an afternoon snack then a ready meal grabbed on the way home. It’s easy to burn through £35 in a single day.


Embrace the whole!

Convenience has made us complacent and lazy. Meat is now sold in breasts, thighs and legs, for example. We like the easy meat – the nice white meat you don’t have to pick bones out of. It’s also the least flavoursome.

Just saying. It’s also worth pointing out that this is a really expensive way of buying meat. Why not go back to the way your parents used to cook – cook a whole chicken, a larger joint, and so on.  Enjoy the meal then use the leftovers.

Ideas include risottos, pies, stews/ casseroles, bubble and squeak, soups, fillings for wraps. What else do you do?


What can you create from ‘nothing’

Sometimes you need to get a bit creative with what’s available right now. Your grandparents were probably expert at this, with many of them having been through rationing in the war.

I’m not suggesting that this will ever be the case for us, but frankly no one knows what’s coming and this ability to create from nothing is an amazing skill to hone at any time. And when we’re ‘back to normal’, you’ll save a fortune.

Obviously when I say ‘nothing’ this is not entirely true. Sadly, we are not magical Harry Potter beings. However, there are some surprisingly cheap, easy and tasty meals that come from the store cupboard/ leftovers.

  • Dhal and rice – Jamie Oliver has a lovely recipe.
  • Quinoa and any kind of left-over veg with griddled halloumi (which keeps for ages in the fridge).
  • Tuna pasta bake. Add some cheese to the top and the meal feels a little less like your student days.
  • Tuna, olive, caper and tomato pasta feels a little more grown-up.
  • Tortilla/ omelette with any kind of leftover veg, cheese, cold meats.
  • Tex Mex beans on toast.
  • Left-over veg added to lentils and stock – and even better with a little coconut milk – makes a delicious soup.
  • In fact, pretty much any leftover veg can work with the right flourish. I often keep Boursin or cream cheese in the fridge to pull these simple soups together – it seems to make my family feel as though what ended up in the soup was actually part of a recipe.

What other ideas do you have for successful store cupboard suppers?


Understand the best by and use-by dates

We can often be a bit sniffy about what we will and won’t eat and we all have our reasons. You only have to think about how you feel about ‘wonky veg’ and the perfectly formed packet veg...

In tricky times like these, you might need to be a bit more flexible about what you put on the table, while obviously also keeping your family safe! Today I want to take a tour of the best by and use by dates that appear on foods.

  • First, if it’s fresh, refrigerated produce like meat of fish, take more care over this. You can usually smell milk or cream that has turned but it’s harder with animal produce (personal view).
  • ‘Best by’ is an indication from the manufacturer of when the food is at its best.
  • ‘Use by’ may refer to the date beyond which it might go bad.
  • Feel free to ignore the ‘best by’ date but be cautious with ‘use by’.
  • Don’t forget, freeze anything (divided into portions, if necessary) before the ‘use by’ date.
  • I am more cautious with meat and fish ‘use by’ dates. Anything else and the sniff test comes into play. Does it smell like it should?
  • ‘Best by’ dates on spices – give it a sniff. Consider if it’s past that date, it’s contribution to a meal might be diminished but there will still be life in it! These kinds of products rarely have use-by dates. I don’t suppose anyone was killed by out-of-date cumin!


Portion control

It might be that you want to cook up a full packet of whatever you have bought – let’s say meat – and reserve the rest for leftovers. Well done.

It might equally be that you only want to use part of the packet in tonight’s meal. Do not be that person (and I will admit that I have let things go to waste before) that keeps the leftover chicken breast so long that it cannot be safely eaten. When you buy meat, consider dividing up large packets into portions – some for the fridge, some for the freezer.

This is one of the best tools I know for figuring out how much to cook of something. I seem to find it nigh-on impossible to work out how much pasta is right. It’s either too little or way too much.

This helps – the Love Food Hate Waste portion calculator, which will help you get the amount pretty much right. Love Food Hate Waste Planner


What to do with leftovers?

You might be a person who is used to using up leftovers or you might not be. Either way, our current circumstances mean that it will be helpful to get good at this (plus think of the cash you’ll save). Today I want to share some of my favourite resources to help:

Love Food Hate Waste has stacks of interesting ideas to try -

Tesco Real Food has some great ideas for common ingredients -

Some of my favourite spend-and-save books are these:

Economy Gastronomy by Allegra McEvedy & Paul Merrett

Save with Jamie by Jamie Oliver

Eat, Shop, Save by Dale Pinnock

Eat Well for Less (various different books) by Greg Wallace & Chris Bavin


 I’m often told by my clients that it’s easier to stick to eating healthily when they are not at work. If you are social distancing/ working from home or whatever NOW is a really great time to get your house in order when it comes to eating well.

You might not be able to anything else right now – like go out! – but you can start to think about cooking from scratch. Let’s find something positive to take from this.


Could you go veggie?

  • Unless you’ve been living under a stone for the last few years, it can’t have escaped your notice that being vegan, vegetarian or at least mostly meat-free has been big news. Eschewing meat in favour of veggie alternatives has also been huge in the recipe book business, and glamorous protagonists include (Deliciously) Ella Woodward and Madeline Shaw.
  • Now there’s perhaps even more reason to do this. Eating plant-based sources of protein is much cheaper than eating animal sources of protein like meat. By veggie protein, I mean things like tofu, miso and tempeh, buckwheat, quinoa (say ‘keen-wa’), peas and beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts and nut butters, seeds and seed butters, including flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and tahini.
  • Some of the greatest dishes known to man are the ‘peasant dishes’ some cultures grew up with: beans on toast, rice and peas (beans), lentils (dahl) and rice.

Check out this BBC page for some great recipes

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