Understanding essential nutrients for building women’s immunity
While balanced diets containing essential vitamins and minerals are critical to build our immune systems, shortfalls in modern diets can be met through fortified foods.
Women are concerned about boosting immune systems of family members, especially children. Their health always takes a back seat and coupled with today’s lifestyles, eating or providing a balanced diet on a day-to-day basis is challenging either due to access, some misconceptions on nutrition or simply lack of time.
To add to this, when we see a rise in numerous health concerns and, it is time women focus on building a strong immune system as it is critical in protecting our health. For this, we must consume a healthy diet rich in vitamins and minerals. Nutritious food apart, we should exercise regularly, get adequate sunshine and enjoy sound sleep so our bodies have adequate rest to promote strong immunity.
Here are some additional tips to achieve our goals. Some of the key vitamins are C, E, A, D, and folate and B₁₂ from the B complex group. A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C helps strengthen our body’s natural defences, safeguarding cells from harmful free radicals. Therefore, women should have plenty of veggies and fruits such as oranges, bell peppers, lime, strawberries, guavas, etc.
Another crucial nutrient is vitamin E, also a key antioxidant, available in high-fat plant foods such as peanut butter, sunflower seeds and almonds. Next is vitamin A that helps fight infections. Rich sources include carrots, cheese, eggs, oily fish, milk, yoghurt, mango, sweet potatoes, papaya and most dark, leafy green vegetables.
Then there’s vitamin D – the ‘sunshine vitamin’. Unfortunately, as many women spend most hours indoors, we do not receive enough sunshine to allow our skin to produce this vitamin. Since this essential element is found in a few food sources only – oily fish, cod liver oil, liver, egg yolk, cheese and some mushrooms – we can supplement our intake via foods fortified with this vitamin. Along with vitamin D, calcium is also important. Therefore, it’s essential we have adequate quantities of both so our bones remain strong.
The other critical vitamin is B₆, which supports biochemical reactions in our immune system. This is necessary for metabolising fat, protein and carbohydrates as well as in creating red blood cells. As our bodies cannot produce B₆, we have to obtain it from select foods or supplements. Foods rich in B₆ are chickpeas, turkey, tuna, salmon, cottage cheese, bananas and potatoes, among others. In preventing and treating health problems, instead of food sources, supplements could play a pivotal role.
Two other essential vitamins for women are B₉ and B₁₂. Folate is the natural version of vitamin B₉, which is a water-soluble micronutrient naturally occurring in many foods. Folic acid is the version added to foods and also marketed as a supplement, is actually absorbed better (85%) than that found in food sources (50%)!
Though folate occurs naturally in citrus fruits and dark green vegetables, fortified cereals are good sources of folic acid. Folate is required by the body to produce healthy red blood cells and prevent anaemia. It is also vital during stages of rapid growth, including pregnancy and foetal development.
Vitamin B₁₂ (also called cobalamin) is found naturally in dairy and meat products. Required for the formation of red blood cells as well as in the development and function of brain and nerve cells, B₁₂ can be added to foods or supplements.
Iron, zinc and selenium also play a major role in supporting our immune system. Iron is vital for immune function and its shortfall can cause anaemia, weakening the immune system. According to National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS), more than 50% of Indian women are anaemic, definitely a big concern. Iron-rich foods include poultry, meat, shellfish, fish, nuts, legumes, seeds, dried fruit and leafy green veggies as well as cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Although vegetables contain the less easily absorbed non-haem iron, if consumed with fruits vegetables rich in vitamin C, can help increasing iron absorption. But don’t forget – excess iron may suppress the immune system. So only use supplements as advised by your doctor if you have an iron deficiency.
Where zinc is concerned, this mineral keeps us healthy by helping our immune system work properly. Be it pregnancy, infancy or childhood, zinc aids the body in normal growth while assisting the breakdown of carbohydrates and wound healing. Meat, fish, eggs, whole grains, nuts, baked beans and legumes are good sources.
Since current lifestyles hinder the consumption of regular balanced meals, food fortification is also a good option to increase micronutrient levels in our diets. Commonly-consumed staples such as rice, flour and other cereals can be easily fortified at home. Brands such as NuShaktiTM – with a range of products that help fortify daily foods like flour and rice – are well suited for this.
Food fortifiers make these staples more nutritious without affecting taste or dietary habits. Therefore, women can look at fortified foods to address the nutritional shortfalls in their diets as well as their families.
About the author -
Pawni Arora - Nutritionist, Founder, Pink of Health
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