Can seasonal eating keep you from getting the cold or flu?

The news out there is pretty bad: the flu is worse this year in the US, and the flu vaccine is only up to 30% effective. Strangely (to me), doctors and health care workers are making blanket recommendations that everyone should get the flu shot. As for me, I’ve taken the flu shot exactly once in my lifetime, when I was pregnant with my second child, and only at the insistence of my Chinese medicine doctor (who helped me overcome secondary infertility to achieve a healthy pregnancy at the age of 41). And yet, we rarely get the flu in my household, even when we’ve been exposed to many people who are clearly sick with it. In fact, my 7-year old is the only one in our household who ever gets a cold or flu, and it's always a mild version that she's able to overcome in a day or two.

Disclaimer: No, I am not anti-vaccine. Both my kids have all their shots, and so does my partner and my cat. I just don’t believe in mindlessly taking medicine just because your doctor or nurse says to do so.

Because the flu season has been extra virulent this season, many people have been exploring new or added ways to protect themselves. This post discusses one method that is often overlooked in the process of keeping yourself healthy in cold and flu season: eating seasonally appropriate foods. But first, I want to outline four of the approaches people typically take:

First, avoid getting the flu: yes, washing your hands frequently can be an effective way of avoiding illness. But this is extremely hard to keep up with all day, especially if you have young children at home or work in a hospital or university). And even the most diligent person has a slip-up now and again: remember the Bernie Mac episode where the kids at Bryana’s birthday party get sick, and Bernie -- hell-bent on getting to Vegas –- goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid contact with any sick person, just to end up getting the flu anyway?

Second, treat the symptoms and go to work/school/Vegas regardless. Not recommended. Not only will you make other people sick, you’ll make it harder for your body to recover from this illness, and you may well end up with one of the secondary ailments that can strike flu sufferers, like bronchitis or pneumonia .

Third, treat the symptoms and stay in bed until you’re well. Ok, at least this way you won’t make others sick, but you’ll be miserable for up to a week. This is the no-other-option option, and can hardly be called a strategy. Still, it’s better than the second method above.

Fourth, attack the virus the moment it hits you. This involves paying close attention to what your body is trying to tell you and being hyper aware (beforehand) of what feels “normal” for you. There are a lot of products on the market that claim to kill cold and flu viruses, or to shorten their duration. Typically, these products work best if you start your attack as soon as you feel the first symptoms. In a 2016 blog post I wrote about some of these remedies. If you want more details, I can send you my “cold and flu killers” cheat sheet, which has an extensive list of remedies. Click the button below and let me know where you want me to send it. (no signup or subscription needed)


Fifth, boost your immune system so that it’s able to fight against the virus when you have been exposed to it. If you are already a health-conscious person who leads a healthy lifestyle, this may not involve too much inconvenience or disruption to your day-to-day life. Eating whole foods, avoiding processed foods as much as possible, and focusing on those foods that help support your immune system are all a part of this process. Some supplements can help, as well as drinking herbal teas that provide immune support; these work best if you already have a fairly healthy lifestyle (one that includes not only healthy eating, but also regular moderate exercise, minimizing stress and getting enough sleep each night).

All 3 of these approaches are good; and each has its particular requirements, challenges, and limitations. When they are coupled with seasonal eating, however, they become much more effective. So what exactly does seasonal eating mean? There are two basic definitions that capture most, but not all, of the meaning of seasonal eating as it is understood today. Seasonal eating means consuming

locally produced seasonal food. This is food that is produced outdoors in its natural growing season for a particular region and consumed by people living in that region (often understood to refer to a 100-mile radius). This is the most limiting of choices for most people, and despite the socio-cultural connections that now exist between ethical eating and local foods (i.e. the “locavore movement”), connections that tend to be clearest in higher socio-economic class groups, it is not always the most ideal option.

or it means consuming

locally produced, globally consumed food that is eaten with regard to the seasons of the year. This is food that is produced outdoors in its natural growing season in a particular region but that may be consumed by people elsewhere. In other words, this kind of “seasonal food” is consumed both locally and outside of its local region.

So as you can see, defining seasonal eating is not that simple. Nowadays we see many different definitions of seasonal eating not just because of differences in terms of whether food comes from local or distant sources, but also because some foods can be grown outdoors using polytunnels, cold frames, or hot boxes, or by starting seedlings inside where it’s warm, and then transplanting them outdoors later. Other foods can be preserved by canning, freezing, or drying, then eaten much later. Foods grown this way can all be considered seasonal foods.

The core principles behind seasonal eating are that eating a diet that’s appropriate for the time of year (or season) in your region, one that prioritizes whole grains (40-60%), plant-based foods (20-30%), and beans and bean products (10%), and eliminates or minimizes your consumption of alcohol, spicy foods, dairy, processed foods, refined sugars, and meats (fish is ok), lowers your risk for diseases like cancer and heart disease. Eating this way also helps lower cholesterol and is a great option for people who suffer from ailments like asthma, heart disease, ADD, ADHD, gum disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, or a host of other ailments caused by chronic inflammation in the body. There are 2 key principles in seasonal eating to keep in mind:

The first principle is that the human body has certain nutritional needs that change with each season (the same is true of most animals), so eating foods with respect to the seasons (while aiming to consume locally sourced foods as much as reasonably possible) can affect your overall health positively, but also will enable you to overcome or prevent some common health ailments.

The second principle is that seasonal eating aims to maximize your ability to absorb the nutritional content of food. It’s no secret that most food grown today in the United States lacks the full spectrum of nutrients, especially micronutrients, that it is supposed to have. Part of the reason for this is that there has been more focus in large-scale agriculture on pest and disease resistance than on developing the full nutritional spectrums of food.

These basic principles behind seasonal eating address the body’s ability to do two things: make the most of the nutrients provided by the whole, nutritious foods you consume, and b) fight off diseases, with or without the aid of supplements, or herbal remedies or teas.

So what food should you eat, with the seasons in mind?

In winter or the cold season, your body tends to burn fewer calories because you exercise less, but you still need energy and fuel to maintain healthy bodily functions. For example, healthy carbohydrates that break down slowly in the body, like sweet potatoes and whole grains give you needed fuel to stay strong. Whole grain pasta helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and enhances your mood (which is especially important for people who may suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD). Healthy carbs like winter squash, butternut squash, and acorn squash boost serotonin production in the body and help you eat less (by contrast, unhealthy carbs containing refined sugars create a pleasure effect in the brain that encourages you to overeat). Other healthy carbs like potatoes can lower blood pressure through potassium and kukoamines. One small to medium baked potato, drizzled with olive oil and a little sea salt or pink salt (or no salt), or sliced, mixed in a little olive oil, and baked in the oven, makes a great snack rich in healthy carbs.

Other cold season foods you should eat include the following:

  1. Citrus fruits. One recipe I use each morning is 1 tsp Apple Cider Vinegar + lemon juice (from ½ lemon) + 1 tsp honey + hot water. This concoction also helps maintain healthy digestion (and a healthy gut is key to maintaining good health overall). You can also make a salad out of tangerines and grapefruit: mix with cranberries and dates and top with ginger sesame dressing or a vinaigrette.
  2. Make a soup with carrots and sweet potatoes. This is super easy to make: roast the veggies until soft, and blend in a food processor with warm vegetable stock, water, and spices (my faves are garam masala, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves). You can also try this yummy recipe for Curried Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup from Food Network.
  3. Fish that are rich in Omega 3s, like tuna and salmon (which have inflammation-fighting properties).
  4. Food that is rich in glutathione. Glutathione is a potent antioxidant that strengthens your immune system, helping it to fight infections. You can find it in kale, collard greens, broccoli, and cabbage. Any of these veggies can be prepared simply by sautéing in a bit of olive oil with pink salt, pepper, and garlic (garlic is another powerful antioxidant and flu-fighting food that contains allicin, a compound that releases antioxidants).

Want to know other seasonal foods to eat that help bolster your body’s immune response to infection? Our Free Resources contain a downloadable seasonal eating chart that you can print or save to your phone or device for easy access. Sign up below to receive access to this chart and to a number of additional resources for your healthy eating and lifestyle.

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