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Staying healthy this flu season

It may be cold outside but winter doesn't have to be the unhealthiest time of year. (Photo Credit: Dominik Martin)

It may be cold outside but winter doesn’t have to be the unhealthiest time of year. (Photo Credit: Dominik Martin)

Earlier this year, The Conference Board of Canada released a report card that graded the health of Canadians, broken down by province. In that report, the highest ranking Atlantic Canadian province was PEI (B), followed by New Brunswick (C), followed by Nova Scotia (D) and Newfoundland (D-). And while other provinces fared better, and some provinces and territories fared worse, it got the team at Rustik thinking.

In a society where universal health care is a shared economic burden, where the level of public health messaging has stopped flowing with any real significance, and where perpetually unhealthy lifestyle choices – smoking, poor diet, lack of activity among many others — has grown seemingly unchallenged, is it not incumbent upon us as members of the media and as part of our mandate to educate and inform, to be a part of the solution (however small) to what ails us more generally?

In that vein, Rustik teamed up with Diana Chard, a dietitian from Halifax, to launch an ongoing monthly column called “Ask the dietitian.” We’re kicking the series off with a question solicited from one of our subscribers, but we’d love to have you, the reader, write in with your questions and share your comments on what you read as a way to encourage healthy (pardon the pun) dialogue on health.

Q. It seems like everyone around me is sick this winter. I’ve been hearing a lot about immune boosting foods. Are there foods I can eat to strengthen my immune system this winter so that I won’t get the flu?

A. Unfortunately, there are no specific foods that will bolster your immune system. That having been said, there are still a number of precautions you can take to decrease your chances of getting sick.

Here’s an idea. Step one: Purchase enough food to see you through the winter. Step two: Don’t leave your house until spring. (Just kidding.)

While some of us may wish we could hibernate, it’s virtually impossible to avoid human contact. So to minimize your risk of exposure to viruses, be sure to wash your hands frequently, especially before eating or touching your face. Wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them. You don’t know how many ill people may have handled them before they made their way to your fridge or fruit bowl.

Even though there is no magical food that will prevent you from catching a cold, or the flu, leading a healthy lifestyle will help. The jury’s still out on whether or not vitamin C can help prevent or shorten the duration of a cold (it looks like it may reduce symptoms by about a day) but eating a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables certainly won’t do you any harm.

In addition to diet, there is research showing that exercise can decrease your risk of catching a cold. You don’t even have to be a marathon runner or gym junkie to reap the benefits. In fact, people who train the hardest (we’re talking running 60+ miles a week) may be at more risk of illness compared to those who train to a lesser degree.

We also know that stress can depress our immune systems. While it can be difficult to control factors around us such as work, family, finances, etc., we can find ways to alleviate those feelings of stress. Besides exercise, you might want to try meditation, reading a book, taking a bath, having a cup of tea, baking, chatting with a friend, going for a walk/hike… Whatever transports you away from that stress to a happier place.

Getting enough sleep is also important. In addition to avoiding screens for at least an hour before you close your eyes (yep, sorry, you should not be snuggling with your tablet, smart phone or laptop in bed), food can play a role in helping or hindering your slumber. A warm beverage shortly before bed may help you sleep, however caffeine and alcohol may interfere with your ability to sleep soundly through the night. Herbal tea or warm milk are both good choices. Neither a rumbling tummy nor a full one is ideal at bedtime. If you have a long time between supper and the time you go to bed, you might want to have a small snack an hour or so before you go to sleep. Perhaps a bowl of cereal, a handful of nuts or a few crackers with cheese – just enough to satiate you without leaving you feeling stuffed. You don’t want your body to have to work away at digesting food when you’re trying to dream.

Last, but not least, a quick plug for the flu shot. Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble as to whether or not it will protect you from the flu each year. However, even 40 per cent effective is better than no protection at all. While you may think you are young and healthy and don’t need a flu shot, you should still get one to protect those around you. Maybe you don’t know any babies, seniors, people with allergies, or illnesses that prevent them from getting the flu shot, but it’s reasonable to think that in the run of a day such people will cross your path. If more healthy people get the flu shot, fewer vulnerable people will be exposed to, and suffer the effects of, the flu.

While there are many things you can do to reduce the chances of being sick this winter, unfortunately diet isn’t the frontrunner. Don’t dump out your green smoothie or extra spicy curry if you love them – they still contribute to you being healthy. Just don’t expect a ’superfood‘ to come along and protect you from the flu.

As a dietitian and well being counselor, Diana Chard aims to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food. She blogs at bitemywords.com.

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