How to eat for Immunity – Colleen Gray-Hewett

Immunity 101 – You Just Get Stronger!

Colleen Gray-Hewett, BA, CHN

Plant Strong Holistic Nutritionist; TaG Cyclist

In this time of COVID-19 we read and hear about who is most at risk and who is best armed to fend this virus off. We need to be the person who can fend it off.

As a TaG cyclist, you already have one big cleat on the pedal to a stronger immune system. You have a stronger cardiovascular system and often a boosted lung capacity. I know many of you and cycling isn’t all you do. There are runs and gym sessions, hikes and swims, skiing and yoga. Sport and movement are very important lifestyle components that contribute to your body’s ability to fight viruses and bacterial infections.

Inflammation is the enemy of immunity. Acute inflammation is good. This is your body’s immediate and temporary response to aid healing specific to an injury. Chronic inflammation is what we need to avoid. “Unchecked, the immune system prompts white blood cells to attack nearby healthy tissues and organs, setting up a chronic inflammatory process that plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time.” (Harvard Health Sciences)

It is the underlying precursor to chronic diseases and a compromised immune system. At its earliest stages, chronic inflammation can leave you feeling rundown and not quite your MAP self.

Food is one of the most important ways to keep your immune system strong and reducing or eliminating chronic inflammation. It is never too late to add some extra goodness to your diet! Here are some suggestions to add to your daily or weekly home-cooked meals (since we are all cooking at home these days):

  • Eat a variety of plants in all the colours to maximize antioxidants and phyto (plant) nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Eat the whole fruit or vegetable as close to natural state as possible. Ideally you are having 5 servings of fruit and berries and 7-9 servings of vegetables daily.

The plants that are great at boosting immunity and excellent inflammation reducers:

  • Leafy Greens: Spinach, kale, arugula, field greens, chard, bok choy, dandelion;
  • Berries: Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries;
  • Beets: steamed, grated raw, roasted;
  • Cruciferous Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, artichokes;
  • Citrus Fruits: Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit;
  • Cherries: Tart cherries in particular (in season is best for cherries);
  • Tomatoes: In winter months, seek smaller varieties for more flavour;
  • Peppers: red, yellow, orange, green and some other varieties
  • Garlic and onions: fresh is best and seek local varieties not Asian (garlic);
  • Legumes: Black beans, chickpeas, cannellini beans, soybeans/edamame, lentils, kidney beans, mung beans, any bean!
  • Nuts: Brazil nuts (2 per day for selenium); walnuts (Omega 3)
  • Turmeric: 1 tsp in your smoothie, golden latte (non-dairy), add to stews, soups and curries with a twist of black pepper to make more bioavailable to your body;
  • Ginger: powdered or fresh;
  • Cinnamon: seek out Ceylon cinnamon which is true cinnamon;
  • Omega 3 Fatty Acids: from food: walnuts, flax, chia, hemp, seaweed, soy- tofu. Or an Omega 3 algae-based supplement (Whole Earth & Sea has a good one);
  • Vitamin D: Especially in Northern Climates. Add a K2 if you are not eating any leafy greens; take a supplement – you can’t get enough from fortified foods.
  • B12: Everyone needs this and particularly those age 60+; take a supplement
  • Zinc: directly linked to immune system function; leafy greens, seeds, beans
  • Magnesium: So many functions in the body! Avocado, leafy greens, black beans, bananas, figs, almonds, pumpkin seeds and…ta da…dark chocolate

The foods to avoid that contribute to lower immunity and increased chronic inflammation:

  • Dairy in all forms (milk, cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, in recipes): of all the things to avoid, dairy tops the list for almost any health affliction due to its highly inflammatory properties.
  • Refined/processed products: think white – white flour, white sugar, white rice; and think packaged – a lot of the middle aisle stuff.
  • Refined sugars: ‘Refined’ being the word to note. You can eat all the fruit you want in the whole fruit form (not the juice). The sugars in fruit are not handled by the body the same as eating a piece of candy, a baked good, or a tsp of sugar in your coffee. Please eat fruit.
  • Consider reducing meat: if eating meat or fish, choose smaller cuts and the highest quality you can afford.
  • Fried foods: no explanation necessary

The take-away here is that there is a lot you can do simply with your food choices to improve your odds of minimizing the effects of this virus or not getting it at all. Building your immunity while reducing inflammation will aid your cycling, sports and overall movement and may quicken your recovery between sessions. It will also create a stronger foundation for when (not if) the next pandemic arrives.

The other immune boosting areas to focus on are:

  • Sleep (aiming for 7-9 hours/night for all adults; more for teens); A 15-20 min daytime nap if you missed 7+ hours. Go to bed earlier with a book. No devices in the bedroom.
  • Stress reduction – can be a tough one during these times so moving daily and eating well are very important. Consider an adrenal support supplement if you are really struggling to go along with above dietary recommendations.
  • Don’t smoke and keep alcohol consumption reasonable

Here is a recipe that is perfect for the self-isolation pantry and for fueling your outdoor/fresh air escapes:

Costa Rican Beans and Rice (Gallo Pinto)

(From Plant Pure Nation by Kim Campbell)

This is a staple recipe for Costa Ricans. It’s very simple dish to make that goes well with a green salad or a side dish of roasted vegetables.

Serves: 4-6

Prep Time: 15 minutes Cooking Time: 45 minutes


  • 1 onion, diced
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and diced
  • 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 1 celery stalk, finely diced
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
  • 1/4 cup water, for sautéing
  • 3 tablespoons (vegan) Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 2 cups black beans, rinsed and drained (see Hint)
  • 3 cups cooked brown rice (see Hint)
  • 1 avocado, sliced
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 4 green onions, sliced


  1. In a skillet over medium-high heat, sauté the onion, garlic, bell pepper, ginger, carrot, celery, and jalapeño in the water until tender.
  2. Add the Worcestershire sauce and spices to the onion mixture and stir to combine.
  3. Add the beans and rice, and stir completely, cooking over medium heat until warmed through.
  4. Garnish with the avocado, cilantro, and green onions before serving.
  5. Add your favourite hot sauce if you like some bite.

Tip: 1.5 cups of brown rice with 3 cups of water should yield about 3 cups of cooked rice.

Tip: black beans: instead of cans, use dried. Quick method: put 1 cup of rinsed, dry beans into a large bowl or 4 cup measuring glass. Pour boiling water (3:1) over the beans and let soak for 1-2+ hours. Then rinse and put in the pot, cover with new water and bring to a boil. Simmer – will take about 20 minutes until cooked through. Should not have a crunch.

Tip: Add 4-5 dinosaur kale leaves stripped from their stalk and chopped up. Add at the end of cooking. Please do this – it tastes great and adds leafy greens.

Tip: For an extra protein boost I will pan fry some tofu to add on top with the avocado but there is plenty of protein without this.