Nutrition: Facing off against the invisible opponent

By Jodi Sheakley 

When one hears the term, “opponent,” we picture the athletes who sport a different team’s logo.  Yet many of our rivals don’t even wear athletic jerseys.  Some of our toughest opponents include cold and flu viruses, bacteria that cause strep or staph infections, and a host of other unwanted guests.

Frigid weather places additional stress on our immune systems and threatens to weaken us.  For example, cold viruses thrive in colder temperatures, where humidity is low.  Young athletes are particularly prone to illness after wearing themselves down, particularly during intense weekend events.

Normally, microorganisms lie “asleep” in the body.  But when the immune system weakens from stress, poor diet, or lack of rest, these infections can take hold.  And while we may not be able to control our exposure to them, we do have control over what we eat.

‘Tis the season, then, to consider some other options to strengthen your young athlete’s immunity during the taxing physical challenges that he/she faces.  Read on for more information on specific foods that may help boost nutritional immunity:

Vitamin C – Helps with 300+ metabolic functions in the body, plus it partners with vitamin E and beta-carotene to strengthen immunity.  The body may need more of this vitamin when exposed to toxins and illnesses.  While found in fruits and vegetables, watch out for juice drinks.  Although they may offer 100% or more of Vitamin C, they often contain the same amount of sugar per 12-ounce serving:  a whopping nine teaspoons!

Many health experts also promote other antioxidants in boosting immune function:
Beta Carotene – Found in green and yellow vegetables, cantaloupe, apricots, parsley, peaches, and papayas;

Selenium – May work with vitamin E to aid in the production of antibodies.  Sources include broccoli, chicken, dairy products, onions, seafood, and whole grains;

Vitamin E – Aids in tissue repair, helps the body use vitamin A, relaxes leg cramps, and may enhance athletic performance.  It is found in cold-pressed vegetable oils, dark green leafy vegetables, brown rice, milk, oatmeal, and eggs; &

Zinc – Obtained through egg yolks, fish, meats, legumes, mushrooms, pecans, poultry, pumpkin seeds, soybeans, seafood, sunflower seeds, soy lecithin, and whole grains.

Worried about meeting your Recommended Dietary Allowances for the day?  Learn to love “double-duty” foods that provide a number of immune-boosting benefits.  Chicken thighs provide iron, zinc & B vitamins, while marinara sauce supplies beta carotene and vitamin C.

Overall, prevention is key.  Though if you’re struck, you might want to try chicken or turkey soup, since hot liquids may help relieve symptoms and shorten the duration of a cold.  Andrew Weil, MD, suggests, “Try sucking on zinc glutonate or zinc acetate lozenges, which.may shorten the duration of a cold in half.”

In conclusion, some of the best protection may come from your grocery store rather than your favorite pro shop.  In this case, a good defense is.well, a good defense!

Have a specific question, comment, or suggestion for a future article?  Contact Jodi Sheakley at

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