Panel says healthy foods fuel immune system

March is National Nutrition Month. To celebrate, Ramapo’s Health Services and Wellness Is Now (WIN) shared simple tips for how busy students can meet their nutritional needs at the panel “Finding the Y in Healthy Eating: Immune Support.”

Health educator and WIN advisor Megan Johnston moderated the presentation and posed questions to family nurse practitioner Beatriz Rojas and WIN peer educator Madison Buccola. If their diverse expertise was not enough to attract attendees, the event also offered free smoothies just in time for the Monday lunch rush.

Health-conscious smoothies are a great way to increase one’s daily intake of fruits and vegetables. Although the American Heart Association advises people to eat four to five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, results from the National College Health Assessment of Spring 2022 indicate about 81% of students eat two or fewer servings of each.

Rojas constantly hears students describe how their poor nutritional choices are due to time constraints. They skip breakfast as they rush to class, then experience major drops in blood pressure that lead them to binge on unhealthy foods.

Informational pamphlets were available for attendees to reference. Photo by Danielle Bongiovanni

Poor nutrition can weaken memory, alertness and the immune system. “It’s not just cough or cold. It’s digestive issues, it’s anxiety, it’s period issues,” Rojas said.

Meal prepping is a way to end the cycle. Smoothies, overnight oats and chia seed pudding were all presented as viable options. When preparing them, however, avoid giving in to your sweet tooth’s demands. “Try to get your tongue adjusted to not using sweeteners,” Buccola said.

When looking for ways to improve one’s diet, fact-checking is vital. Social media is riddled with misinformation. Rojas dismissed several viral falsehoods throughout the presentation. She assured attendees that frozen fruits and vegetables are not less healthy than their fresh counterparts, and carbohydrates are not evil.

“There are no bad or good foods,” she said and dove into different food groups that help the body function.

The three main types of carbohydrates are sugars, starches and fibers. Sugar consumption often comes from refined foods, which should be swapped for starchy cereals and fibrous vegetables or seeds.

Unsaturated fats are superior. Fish, almonds and healthy oils like avocado are great sources. Swapping chips and pretzels for nuts can make a huge difference.

Protein is a building block. “Animal food sources are sort of an easy source of protein,” Rojas said, but vegetarians can obtain all nine essential amino acids by pairing alternatives, such as pasta and cannellini beans or peanut butter and whole wheat bread.

Buccola is a vegetarian commuter student. To get by, she often gets beans from the salad bar at the dining hall and buys protein bars from the convenience store. She aims to choose products with the smallest amounts of processed oils.

The immune system also depends on other lifestyle factors, such as getting at least eight hours of sleep nightly, avoiding excessive alcohol consumption and abstaining from nicotine. One of the most important is drinking enough water. Johnston advised those who forget easily to invest in a large reusable bottle.

The presenters acknowledged that some habits are hard to break. Rojas still enjoys coffee, but over time switched to drinking it black. What matters is dedication. “Any change, even cutting back one packet of sugar, is beneficial.”

Featured photo by Danielle Bongiovanni