‘I’m an immunologist – here’s an easy food swap I make to protect from winter illness’

In the winter it seems almost impossible to avoid coming down with some kind of illness. Whether it’s a cold, the flu or even Covid, we are far more likely to get sick at this time of the year.

There are treatments and medicines available to help ease the symptoms. However, it is far better to prevent becoming ill in the first place.

Although winter illnesses are not always avoidable, there are steps we can all take to lower our risk of infection. And according to one expert, changing your diet is a good place to start.

Immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi revealed that what you eat is actually the most important factor when it comes to staying healthy through the winter. Speaking to The i, she shared one dietary swap we can all make for this reason.

This is, eating seasonally. Dr Macciochi explained this is because plants are also impacted by the shorter days and lack of light in the winter, so choosing fruits and veggies that are in season can mean they are more nutrient-rich than those that are not.

She said: “Our wellbeing intertwines with the changing seasons. Just as we adjust to the subtle shifts in temperature and daylight, so do the plants we eat.

“This is why I make a conscious effort to align my diet with the season.”

Dr Macciochi shared some of the science behind it.

“As sunlight decreases, plants stop making food and begin to save energy to get through until spring,” she said.

“Their energy goes back to their roots and certain phytochemicals are higher, for example, carotenoids.”

As a result she eats plenty of beta carotene-rich foods at this time of year.

Dr Macciochi said: “Right now I’m focussing on orange seasonal produce like squashes and pumpkins, which are rich in beta-carotene (plant-based vitamin A, known as the anti-infective vitamin) and are best absorbed with a source of fat.”

She recommended trying roasted squash for this reason, seasoned with herbs such as rosemary or thyme.

A classic way to protect against colds and flu is also eating plenty of vitamin C. And this is even better if it comes from in season foods too, she said.

She added: “I eat plenty of vitamin C-rich foods, seasonal citrus fruits such as satsumas and winter berries like juniper, sloe, rosehip, blackberry and elderberry.

“Vitamin C is the classic immune-supporting nutrient for good reason – science supports increased consumption for infection-fighting.”

To keep your gut happy and healthy she also advised eating mushrooms and fermented foods.

Dr Macciochi said: “Mushrooms are also packed with beta-glucans that support immune function both directly and indirectly via our beneficial gut bacteria.

“I like to incorporate some of the more functional mushrooms like chaga or Turkey tail, too.

“Speaking of gut health, fermented foods are full of immune-nourishing nutrients as well as nature’s probiotics from the live microbes.

“I’ll warm up on a cold day with some spicy kimchi or make my own seasonal ferment with added herbs.”

Swapping out regular tea or coffee for herbal tea can also ensure you stay well hydrated, Dr Macciochi said, something that is key to staying healthy.

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