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Fit to Eat: Building Up Your Defenses

Martha Stewart Living, January 2008

Who among us doesn't recall that motherly warning, "If you don't want to get sick, you need to eat a well-balanced diet." Yeah, sure, we'd think, pushing the peas around our plates. But research backs up Mom: The best way to strengthen your immunity -- the body's natural defense against disease -- is to consume a variety of nutrients.

"It's all about plant foods -- fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains," says Linda Van Horn, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. "Deny yourself these foods on a daily basis, and there's no question you have compromised your immune system."

Studies indicate that eating an array of foods can boost the body's ability to fight off infection, inflammation, and even cancer. Although nutrition experts advocate a well-rounded diet, they also emphasize the importance of several specific nutrients. Some we've been hearing about for years -- vitamin C, for example. Others, including fruit- and vegetable-based nutrients called phytochemicals, have become household terms only recently.

Today, with an abundance of healthful ingredients readily available, it's easier than ever to mind your mother's advice. Even the most potent immune-boosters are simple to cook, and, one hopes, a pleasure to eat.

Immune-Boosting Recipes
Chicken and Barley Soup
Cauliflower-Lentil Curry
Ginger and Beef Kale
Fruit Smoothie

Key Ingredients
The top immune-boosting nutrients and the best sources for them.

Folate (or Folic Acid)
Dried beans, leafy greens (kale, romaine, spinach), fortified cereals, and whole grains

Vitamin B6
Dried beans, fish, some produce (bananas, potatoes, avocados, cauliflower), poultry, lean red meat, and whole-grain breads

Vitamin C
Dark-green vegetables (kale, broccoli), kiwi, and yellow and orange produce (citrus, bell peppers)

Deeply hued produce of all colors (blueberries, carrots, sweet potatoes) and dark, leafy greens

Dried beans, lean red meat, nuts, poultry, seafood (especially shrimp and oysters), pumpkin and sesame seeds, whole grains, and yogurt

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