Staying healthy as the cold arrives

Beth H. Olson
Healthy foods and lifestyles go a long way in helping us to battle illness.

In the midst of winter and as we gather indoors, it is time for the cold and flu season to begin. And of course, this year we’re also concerned about the spread of COVID-19.

No one likes to feel sick, and most of us can’t afford to be stuck in bed when we have work to get done and family to take care of.  Too often we don’t take measures to prevent getting sick until we feel that sniffle or sore throat coming on. Although there are things we can do feel better once we’re sick - there are also things we can do to avoid getting sick in the first place.

Getting enough sleep, managing our stress, watching alcohol intake, and not smoking all help keep our immune system strong. Something else we can do is improve our nutrition.

Improving our nutrition, however, isn’t finding a “magic bullet” pill to take or one particular food to eat. For nutrition, it pays to play the long game. Having poor nutrition may not only weaken the ability of our immune system to fight off the germs we inevitably encounter, it can also lead to chronic health conditions that worsen our ability to handle illness.

This has become apparent with COVID-19, with poorer health outcomes for infected people that had preexisting conditions such as obesity or Type II diabetes. These are diseases in which nutrition plays a big role.

So what is the long game for nutrition? For foods – it’s not that different than what nutritionists have been saying for a long time. Focus on getting the widest variety of whole foods that you can: fruits and vegetables in lots of colors, whole grains, and protein foods like meats, fish, and nuts and seeds.

Many of us eat a lot of processed foods. These foods have a place in our diet – they can be time savers and provide us variety when some foods we like are no longer in season. If one makes use of the information on the nutrition facts panel-there are many good choices to help us get healthy, and tasty, meals on the table. Even our favorite snacks or desserts are okay (mom’s apple pie!) as long as we don’t go overboard. 

Along with keeping active, healthy diets can help us prevent the weight gain that could put us at risk of obesity, which puts us at risk of poor outcomes when we get sick. We’re more likely to eat healthy if we sit down to our meals, eat meals with our family, and take time to enjoy our food.

Another important food group is dairy. Dairy foods (such as milk and yogurt) are healthy in general, but are also good sources of vitamin D and calcium. For those that don’t or can’t eat dairy, it’s important to get those nutrients from other foods.

We’ve been learning that people who have very low levels of vitamin D in their blood – that is, are deficient in vitamin D, may not do as well during an infection as those that have enough vitamin D. We can make vitamin D in skin – in summer, just 15 minutes out in the sun makes a lot of vitamin D.

However, some people aren’t as good as making vitamin D as others. And in Wisconsin-we have winter! In these cases, we might not make enough vitamin D and need to get it from food – dairy or other fortified foods, and fatty fish. 

In some cases, people may need to take vitamin D supplements. Talk to your health care provider about vitamin D, to see how you can make sure you have enough vitamin D to keep you as healthy as you can be.

Beth H. Olson

Olson is Associate Professor& Extension Specialist of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

UW Extension