During the covid-19 pandemic, many teens and parents are questioning whether their current diet is delivering needed nutrients. Eating the right foods can play an important role in illness prevention and recovery– but just what exactly are the “right” foods to eat? Instead of media myths and misinformation, here are trusted tips from nutrition professionals on how to protect yourself and your teens during the pandemic through good nutrition.
While there is no specific diet that can guard against a pandemic, a balanced diet full of immune-boosting nutrients (such as fiber, protein, and fruits and vegetables, as well as vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, and B vitamins) and a variety of food sources is the best way to guard you or your teen from illness worsened by malnutrition. It’s also important to combine a healthy diet with healthy habits. Habits such as proper sleep hygiene, hydration, and exercise can help regulate hunger in a healthy way.
Read on for proven tips and tricks from the professionals to protect your teenager from poor nutrition during the pandemic.
Healthy Eating During the Pandemic
Having healthy eating habits can help safeguard your team from illness and fortify their immune system against attack. Nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, contain key nutrients that help the body fight potential threats and save the body from illness and disease.
Why is it Important for my Teenager to Eat Healthily During the Pandemic?
Getting the proper nutrition allows for the body’s immune system to stay strong and healthy. While there is no magic pill that can keep your teen protected from the pandemic, having an eating plan that accounts for their needs and nutrient requirements can equip your adolescent with good health habits that may extend far beyond the pandemic.
What are the Benefits of Healthy Eating during the Pandemic?
Eating healthy has benefits in general, but especially during a pandemic it is important to be aware of what your teen is consuming. Nutrient-rich foods are high in vitamins and minerals essential to fighting infections or illness. They also tend to be lower in calories so your teen’s body can focus on maintaining immunity instead of an overloaded metabolism.
Supporting Your Teenager’s Health with Good Nutrition
For each of the following groups, consider changes you or your teen can make to receive a nutrient-dense diet on a regular basis.
Fruits & Vegetables
Choose several different colors of fresh produce to get a variety of nutrients. You should also find options canned, frozen, dried, or jarred in 100% juice or water, since they don’t contain added sugars. For vegetable juices, look for reduced-sodium items.
Choose whole grains when you can, especially when it comes to bread, cereal, rice, and pasta products. Ancient grains like quinoa, amaranth, and millet are whole grains options that adventurous teens can explore.
Foods like oats, whole grains, beans, and lentils contain large amounts of dietary fiber. This helps keep things moving right along in the gut, quite literally. Beyond gut motility, your teen can benefit from a high fiber diet by swapping sugar-laden cereals for fiber-packed foods like oatmeal or a homemade trail mix. This will boost health and keep your teen’s immune system strong and ready to go.
“Processed” does not necessarily mean “bad”, but it almost always helps to look at the label. You’re better off to limit most processed foods, but especially those with too much added sugar, sodium, saturated fat, and calories such as junk food, packaged snacks, and vending machine food. For dairy products such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, opt for low-fat options or calcium fortified plant-based products.
Vitamin D During the COVID-19 Pandemic
I’m a supporter of everyone focusing on their vitamin D intake right now, teens included. Recent studies have concluded that individuals with an adequate level of vitamin D are more protected against getting COVID-19 and more protected against hospitalization and severe complications.
Low vitamin D levels have been associated with increased risk of pneumonia, inflammation, and severity of COVID-19. Vitamin D may be effective in preventing coronavirus infections in healthy individuals and reducing the severity and complications from the virus in at-risk individuals. (see references below).
Vitamin D is important for bone health and strength, muscle growth, immune health, heart and lung function, recovery from injuries, and more. Vitamin D supplementation could benefit teenagers hoping not to get sick. Recent studies suggest that many teens are deficient in vitamin D, meaning a supplement may be necessary for most individuals, especially during the winter months. Vitamin D comes from sun exposure as well as fatty fish, mushrooms, and some fortified foods. You can’t always count on sun exposure to get you all the vitamin D you need.
Vitamin D supplement doses are controversial, especially for teens. Appropriate amounts vary based on individual, climate, and more. The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is set at 600 IU per day of vitamin D for teens, but that may not be enough for all teens, especially teen athletes. A supplement of 400-600 IU per day is usually sufficient. (Be aware that too much vitamin D can be harmful for your body). Not all teens will need a supplement. Vegan, vegetarian, lactose intolerant teens, and those with limited sun exposure may need a supplement, as well as other teens interested in improving their health. Check with a doctor if you believe your teen may benefit from a supplement.
What Should my Teenager Eat if they have Coronavirus Symptoms or are Sick?
Sometimes, even despite your best efforts, your teenager may become ill. There might not be a cure for common colds or the coronavirus, but what they both have in common is that there are many nutrient-dense foods that can keep your teen feeling well-nourished while fighting the sickness.
Soft Fruits & Vegetables
Soft fruits and vegetables are full of vitamins and minerals, contain higher levels of water for supporting fluid replenishment, and are often full of antioxidants that help promote good general health and strengthen immunity. Frozen fruits and vegetables can usually be easily thawed and are more shelf-stable than fresh fruit, especially with the complications and challenges of grocery shopping during a pandemic or trying to minimize a more vulnerable loved one’s exposure. Smoothies made with low-fat milk or fortified non-dairy beverages can also have a cooling effect on sore throats and may be easier to stomach and swallow for someone who is ill.
Simple Starches & Soups
Many teens might remember eating toast or a simple noodle or rice dish following the flu, and here is why. These foods are composed of simple starches, which basically means they are easy for the body to digest and convert into energy. Soups, like the commonly consumed chicken noodle, offer similar benefits by being made of easy to eat vegetables and warm broth that provides fluids for people healing. Try making homemade soup with chopped veggies, cooked rice or noodles, and minimal amounts of salt. Many store bought soups contain high levels of sodium (salt) or other additives that can interfere with your teen’s healing.
Protein is a macronutrient that plays a major role in healing and recovery. The following foods can help your teen get protein in their diet:
- Lean meat
- Soy products
- Dairy products
- Unsalted nuts
- Unsalted seeds
Vitamin A regulates the immune system by fortifying the skin, the first line of defense, as well as tissues in major organs such as the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system. Looking for foods fortified with vitamin A, such as eggs, milk, and some cereals can help your teen get more marginal levels of the vitamin. Major sources of vitamin A often have a red or orange hue, and include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Red bell peppers
B-Family Vitamins, such as vitamins B6, B12, and folate also play a role in immune response and help turn food into energy at the cellular level. This is especially important in times of pandemic because the teenage body will not only be growing, but also may be expending extra energy protecting itself against the virus.
Vitamins in the B-family help protect the body in many ways. B6 is a vitamin that helps to fight infection and metabolize protein, another nutrient essential to immunity. Cobalamin, also known as vitamin B12 commonly, helps create new red blood cells. B-vitamins are commonly available or found fortified in the following foods:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Animal products (i.e. milk, meat, cheese, eggs)
- Enriched grains and fortified cereals
- Leafy green vegetables
Vitamin C is known for supporting immunity, but a common myth is that drinking orange juice while sick can help heal you. This is false — the real power of vitamin C is protective in nature, meaning if your teen has a regular intake of nutrient-dense foods containing vitamin C, they are likely preventing illness and protecting themselves proactively. In other words, taking vitamin C during sickness can’t help your current cold but it may play a role in protecting you from another one.
Similarly to vitamin A, several foods can be found fortified with vitamin C. Commonly fortified foods include fruit and vegetable juices, drinks, electrolyte drinks, and some cereals. Also in similarity to vitamin A, foods with vitamin C often are orange, red, or pink in color, including:
- Red bell pepper
- Tomato juice
Berries and citrus, such as lemons and limes, also provide solid sources of vitamin C.
Vitamin E is well-known and valued for its role as an antioxidant, meaning it is a nutrient that helps protect the body against cellular stress (cell damage or injury). It supports immunity in a teen body by fortifying cell walls and moisturizing the body’s barriers such as the scalp and skin. From skin-deep all the way down to the cellular level, vitamin E keeps red blood cells protected and is even considered “anti-aging” in its effect on skin and hair health.
Many foods and fortified products, such as cereals, contain vitamin E and its special properties, including:
- Sunflower seeds
- Vegetable oils (i.e. sunflower or safflower oil)
- Peanut butter
Minerals such as copper, zinc, selenium, and iron help make sure the body stays healthy. Some minerals like zinc help heal wounds and keep the immune system working particularly well. Zinc can be found in foods such as:
- Lean meat (i.e. chicken, turkey, lean cuts of beef or pork)
- Whole grain products
What Can my Teenager do to Eat Healthy When Stuck in Quarantine?
Simple swaps can have a big impact, and what better time for a teenager to learn healthy skills than when stuck in quarantine? Picking up a couple healthy habits can be fun, especially if you can get the whole family involved. Grab an apron and get to experimenting with these fun food ideas.
Stir-fry, especially homemade instead of store bought, can be filled with both common foods and exotic flavors simultaneously. Get adventurous by experimenting with fruits and vegetables high in vitamins A and C, such as tomatoes, bell peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, spinach, and carrots. Make nut sauces out of peanuts or peanut butter and add a side of citrus or mango fruit to the side to increase the nutrient content. Rice can be a simple starch to combine with the stir-fry.
Try fermented foods, such as kimchi, instead of fried foods. Yogurt and other probiotic products are also great sources of “good” gut bacteria, and can help to keep the gut of a growing teen happy and healthy.
Canned foods can be a great alternative to fresh food, especially if it’s between that and ordering in for dinner. Canned meats and fish are often available in cans or packages. Look for meat and seafood or fruits and vegetables that are canned at the peak of freshness and that are canned in water, 100% juice, or in its own juices and fluids. Avoid heavy syrup (sugar), and look for “low sodium”, “reduced sodium”, or “no salt added” on the label. Make a competition out of it by involving your teens and trying to make a tasty meal out of just the canned food you have at home. Meals made from canned food can be delicious and nutritious.
Quick-cooking grains, like quinoa or brown rice, are both whole grains that offer excellent nutrient benefits and take mere minutes to prepare. They also pair well with just about anything. Save time by cooking these grains in advance for easy and quick dinner combinations.
Plant proteins like nuts and seeds as well as peanut, almond, cashew, and other butters are great go-to items for protein when a trip for getting a fresh cut of meat isn’t in the cards. Try making your own nut butter out of raw nuts!
Healthy oils such as vegetable oils like olive, canola, safflower, and sunflower contain less saturated fat than their solid counterparts. Try replacing butter or lard in your teen’s meals with liquid or spray plant-based products made from vegetable oils that contain no trans fat. Also, avoid products containing “partially hydrogenated” in the label.
A Balanced Eating Plan
Moderation really is key when it comes to eating healthily. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a healthy eating pattern includes:
- A variety of vegetables
- Fruits, preferably whole
- Grains, with at least half of them being whole grains
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy or fortified alternative beverages
- A variety of protein sources (i.e. seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, nuts, seeds, soy products)
- Oils, especially healthier oils
Getting plenty of rest is essential to recovery for a teenager. Not getting sufficient sleep can lead to a variety of health concerns for an adolescent, including a weakened immune system. Gut health dietitian Kim Braly RD recommends teens get 8-10 hours each night for good sleep hygiene.
Appropriate coping mechanisms such as meditating, listening to music, or writing can be therapeutic ways to deal with stressful or isolating situations.
Having sufficient fluids, especially water intake, can help healing bodies flush out toxins and focus on recovery. 100% fruit juices, diluted juices, water, soup, and broth can all be excellent options to replenish fluids lost. Especially if your teen is experiencing a fever, vomiting, diarrhea, or other symptoms that exacerbate fluid loss, replacing fluids is a key part of recovering properly. Teens may also find herbal teas to be soothing and helpful to regaining hydration. Try sweetening and flavoring herbal teas with honey and lemon instead of more sugar-laden alternatives.
Beyond being good for the body, exercise is a great way to relieve stress. It also reduces the risk of chronic disease by strengthening the immune system and the body’s tissues. Teens need at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity today, and this can be separated into smaller time periods. The following activities can also count as exercise:
- Outdoor sports
- Bike rides
- Interactive video games requiring movement (i.e. virtual tennis, bowling, baseball, dance)
- Outdoor activities (i.e. gardening, chores)
What Foods Help Your Immune System the Most? If you’re looking for a boost to your immune system, increase your consumption of citrus foods, high-quality proteins, dark green or orange vegetables, and yogurt.
How Can I Naturally Boost My Immune System? Besides eating a healthy diet, if you want to avoid getting sick you’ll want to take care of yourself to be at top health and performance. This includes getting enough sleep each night, exercising every day to get your rate and breathing rate up, find ways to control and lower your stress, add foods with probiotics to your diet, and drink plenty of water.
What Vitamins Should I Take To Keep From Getting Sick? The best vitamins for boosting your immune system are vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and some B vitamins. It’s best to be getting these nutrients through food, however, during the coronavirus pandemic it’s clear that vitamin D has benefits as well, which may need to be taken as a supplement for many individuals.
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