"A lot of people think they can just boost their immune system with one shot, you can't really boost your immune system with one mega dose of any certain vitamin." - Andrea Luongo, MS, RD, LD
Shireen: Andrea Longo is a registered dietitian with 11 years experience in Clinical Nutrition. She has a practice in Plano, Texas, where she practices preventative health. Welcome, Andrea. Hi, thank you so much for having me. Glad to have you on. Why did you choose to become a registered dietitian?
Andrea: So it's kind of funny. Honestly, my freshman year of college, I gained a lovely freshman 15, like many of us do, along with many of my friends that did, and I just saw them trying extremely restrictive diets. At that time, it was the grapefruit juice diet, the keto diet or Atkins diet at the time, and it just didn't work and didn't seem realistic or healthy. So I decided to take an intro to nutrition course. And when I saw everything that dietitians do in the clinical field as well in their community, it seemed like a perfect fit for me. I've always been into healthy, strong bodies, and really seeing what dieticians do to help a variety of people really kind of clicked with me.
Shireen: Really interesting. And so that set you on the path to becoming a registered dietician?
Andrea: It did, it did.
Shireen: I want to focus today's episode on immune system and immune health. A lot of people are talking about that these days. What does it mean to have a healthy immune system?
Andrea: Well, our immune system protects the body against disease or other potentially damaging foreign bodies and so when our immune system is”healthy,” it will identify and attack a variety of threats. And that includes viruses, bacteria, and parasites. At the same time, while it's doing this, it's also distinguishing these threats from the body's own healthy tissue.
Shireen: Now, when we're talking about the immune system, and how we can build it up, how does boosting one's immune system protect one from COVID-19?
Andrea: That's a really great question. I'm so glad that you asked that, a lot of people think they can just boost their immune system with one shot, you can't really boost your immune system with one mega dose of any certain vitamin. If you don't follow a healthy lifestyle all the time, simply taking a large dose of vitamins won't suddenly correct any damage that has been done, the best that you can hope for is that it may start to help correct any deficiencies you may have. That's also a big misconception in this country, if I'll just get an emergency or this one mega dose isn't really helping your cells out too much. Um, another thing to point out is that if you follow an unhealthy lifestyle, your immune system actually never really stops working. And when the immune system gets stuck on a slow endless burn, it's actually unable to perform all the life saving reactions that we would like it to. So unfortunately, one of the consequences of an immune system that is not quote unquote, healthy is that it actually never takes a rest. So when we need it to work, it might actually be asleep, especially right now with the COVID-19. Everyone's like, oh, immune system, immune system, it's like, well, if you're unhealthy all the time, doing one thing right now is not really going to help you too much. And that's why, especially since it's summertime, this is the time really to start getting healthy, because if we do have this possibly expected wave of COVID, again, in the fall, you want to get your immune system healthy. Now you don't want to get healthy when it's needed. You want to be ready when it's needed, but don't start working on it when there's already a virus present.
Shireen: So it's all it's all part of having a healthy lifestyle, like having a strong foundation.
Andrea: Your goal should be to adopt a lifestyle that strengthens your immune system year round. Like I said, not just when it's needed. I think that's something that really became apparent to a lot of people maybe was a reality check with everything that's going on. Because before you probably thought, Oh, I'm healthy. But when everything came out the list of things actually makes you more predisposed to getting the virus are getting sick from the virus like obesity, diabetes, I think some younger people really took a step back and thought, wow, I'm actually falling into this category because of my lifestyle. Whereas before, they thought I never really get the common cold. Now it's kind of a whole new ballgame. Everyone's looking at their, their lifestyle.
Shireen: Interesting, and when we're when we're talking about, you know, in a thing you alluded to this earlier, there aren't any specific nutrients or anything like that. And we're seeing a lot of stuff on the market, especially on social media about certain supplements that you can take and pills and those types of things that are available. So are they of any value? Are they, are they of any benefit to us?
Andrea: I do always recommend a multivitamin. It's just kind of an insurance plan because it's very hard to eat a perfect nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day. But something to consider and this is the example I always use with my patients is if you take a fish from the ocean, that lives in salt water and put in man made salt saltwater, it's not gonna be as pretty and live as long. So same thing we want to eat real food, not necessarily man made vitamins B from the get our vitamins from the foods that we eat, it's a little bit more natural, our body absorbs them a little bit more. And some steps that you can take really strengthen your immune system going along with the lifestyle. If you smoke, obviously, you don't want to smoke in a diet that's high in fruits and vegetables. So again, the supplements are a good insurance policy, but you really don't want to overload it. I see. So, so what are all of those health promoting behaviors to incorporate daily? Oh, you also want to exercise regularly. And this doesn't necessarily have to be anything very intense, like CrossFit. But just challenging yourself a little bit every day by getting your heart rate up. Now everyone's a little bit different. So if you know getting your heart rate up means just walking around the block, then do that. So don't feel defeated before you ever start. But just do something on a regular basis. That gets your heart working. You also want to maintain a healthy weight. If you drink alcohol, drink only moderation, honestly get adequate sleep, which is much easier said than done for most of us. Other things you could do again, this has been really big everywhere washing your hands and also trying to minimize stress, which again is much easier said than done. Given all of the the COVID stress has been going on.
Shireen: Makes sense. And when we're talking about foods and vegetables are there, are there certain ones to focus on more than others? Anything there?
Andrea: You definitely want to focus on fruits and vegetables that are high in vitamin C. So oranges, carrots, things like that. But again, you want a variety. So I always tell my patients to do five different colors a day, however, you really want to do that. So if it's broccoli and maybe a plum, and then carrots and squash, whatever combination you want to come up with the goal is to get variety. And what this does is allows our body to get different nutrients consistently. That's the other point I'd like to point out is that how you mentioned before boosting your immune system, it's not realistic, it needs to be consistent. Consistency is key with the human body, you want to do it on a daily basis and make it kind of your regular patterns. So keeping a variety of fruits and vegetables is your best bet, I think a standard multivitamin for like I said the insurance policy is good, you do want to choose a name brand multivitamin, and some of the other, maybe store brands won't be as good, they'll have some fillers in there that have five different colors a day, any combination that you think is tasty and kind of keeps you interested. And then along with it just to stay on multivitamin. But you also want to keep up with healthy protein and carbohydrates too, you just want to have a very balanced meal plan.
Shireen: And when you talk about the, the variety and colors, what does that mean in terms of, how does it translate into the nutrition value that the fruits and vegetables may have?
Andrea: So each color kind of has different phytochemicals and when we think of phytochemicals, we think of disease fighting properties. And immune boosters, I guess we could call them also. With that does again, each phytochemical has a different antioxidant power and what antioxidants do is they help prevent oxidation, obviously. And oxidation equals lower immune system cancers, heart disease. So when we pick these five different colors, we can just ensure that we're getting a little bit of everything that we need. But again, we're keeping our palette excited, we're not getting stuck in this same, you know a few things every single day so we're eventually going to fall off of it. And that's one of the key things because I think the biggest misconception out there about eating healthy is it's bland. It's not as exciting. You're sort of eating the same foods day in and day out and every day.
Shireen: Yeah. And the fact of the matter is that that's not necessarily the case. You can get creative with it.
Andrea: Definitely. And that's the thing, too, that I always like to point out to people when you're not doesn't mean salads every day doesn't mean this. But again, just keeping the variety and something that you like you have to keep in mind, the human body knows what to do. If you feed the right amount of proteins, fats and carbs, your body will utilize it the right way and keep your immune system strong. Your body wants a strong immune system, obviously, that's what keeps it alive. So if you give it the proper things, it will utilize them the right way. And some things I see out there’s different things you can buy that help you absorb vitamins 10 times better this and that you don't really need . Again, a human body knows what to do if you give it what it needs.
Shireen: And then what are you know, when, when we're looking at vitamins to consider even nutrition in general to consider what are some good combinations to look at? Are there certain nutrients or minerals that work well with one another? Is there like a combination that, that's more effective perhaps than, than others?
Andrea: That's a great question. Yes. So if you're happy there's certain things that do help each other absorb in certain vitamins that only are absorbing certain amounts. So for example, if you are having something like steak or something a good amount of iron in it, even piece is good, too. Mash that with vitamin C. So, maybe eggs, the morning with orange juice, you will absorb that a little bit better abs, like I said steak and peas. That's a good source of iron and vitamin C. So vitamin C helps the absorption of iron, which is really useful for us. Like I mentioned some things that are only absorbed in some amount. So when we take those emergency packets, it's advertised 1000 milligrams of vitamin C, that is how much you need in one day, however, your body only absorbs 500 milligrams at a time. So we're taking that large vitamin emergency packet, you're really not absorbing 100% of it about half. So really, maybe have an orange in the morning and you have another vitamin C source fruit in the afternoon or something like that. But you don't need to take the mega doses. Same with calcium, you only absorb 600 milligrams at a time. So when you're taking a supplement over the counter, aim for about 600 milligrams twice a day. Or if your multivitamin has at least 600 milligrams of calcium. That's perfect. Aim for two or three servings of dairy throughout the day as well.
Shireen: So interesting. And so if you're taking that 1000 milligrams at a time anyways, and it's more than what your body can absorb, or you just essentially, is it just coming out in terms of waste? Are you or does your body sort of preserve it and hold it and tap into it later?
Andrea: No, I wish that would be perfect. No, it definitely is water soluble. So it's excreted in the urine. So even though even if you need more than 500 milligrams day you are deficient. And if we can determine the exact amount that you need, oh, you need 2000 milligrams today. Okay, it's still at a time, that's the key thing is to focus, a human body can only absorb 500 milligrams at a time, regardless of how much you may need. That's where we want to separate it through the day, and keep each meal colorful and different because it's impossible to determine really exactly how much we're if we have a deficiency, exactly the amount that our body would need a day, it's very difficult to determine that. So that's the best, best to have a variety throughout the day, so your body can absorb as much as it can. And that was the next release. So have more variety. So again, your body can absorb what it needs again.
Shireen: Interesting and so you, and you talked earlier about some of the other things to incorporate; So not only the food, and even the supplements, but looking at exercise and you know, getting your full, ideally eight hours of sleep in how do you, how does? How does some of those have an impact on how your body absorbs nutrition and all of that, like how are they interconnected?
Andrea: So there's, everyone's body is a little bit different in terms of exhaustion, if you don't get enough sleep, certain hormone levels will be different, it does affect food cravings, it's been shown in several studies that if you are severely exhausted, you may crave sweets or carbohydrates more for energy. It's also, it can increase stress eating the next day. And a good thing I like to tell my patients to do is limit screen time, at least an hour before bed, that's phone, television, anything that will at least maybe read or something the last hour, but that will get them a little bit more time where their mind isn't racing as much. And actually, even if they're not getting a full eight hours, they still may get more of the deep sleep is required, again, when we're sleeping our body's repairing any damaged cells. So if we don't get enough sleep, these damaged cells start to build up and then something we really want to avoid. So again, if you have all this inflammation kind of going on, it's going to change your hormone levels, and it will change what you crave the next day.
Shireen: Interesting. Okay, so then I want to from here, I want to look at sort of the average American diet, right? And there's a recommended diet that we need to follow. And then there's of course the diet that, that we're sort of guilty of eating every day, and it's not so healthy. So how does the average American diet really support a strong immune system or lack thereof?
Andrea: So not surprisingly, the typical American diet does not support a strong immune system. Evidence actually suggests that unhealthful foods like the fatty, salty, sugary and processed foods may disrupt the body's defenses in a way that promotes inflammation, infection, or autoimmune diseases and even certain illnesses like cancer. And this is because it doesn't promote healthy bacteria in our digestive tract. I think over the past few years, everyone's kind of heard about keeping your gut healthy, because that's where your immune system and all of your health starts. your gut wall actually houses about 70% of the cells that make up your immune system. A lot of people don't realize that and these beneficial bacteria appear to prefer certain foods and these foods that your gut bacteria prefer are things like fiber, the complex carbohydrates, found in vegetables and whole grains and the thing that's difficult now that I see with my clients is that low carb and keto is so popular. But what they're not realizing is that even though you may be losing weight, you're actually hurting your immune system because you're not getting all these vitamins and minerals that are only fat and whole grains. And other things that also affect your gut bacteria is that they actually, your gut bacteria, dislikes refined sugar and saturated fat. So again, the American diet has a lot of saturated fat, mean fried foods, a lot of cholesterol coming from animal products, because high protein diet fast food, convenience foods, and those all actually promote the death of the good bacteria essentially. So we're not having all this healthy bacteria, helping our immune system and breaking things down. It's actually promoting unhealthy bacteria that will hurt our immune system by causing inflammation throughout the body.
Shireen: When we talk about dead bacteria, My mind goes to yogurt and probiotics and a lot of that, but essentially a healthy gut is not only the, the probiotics, but it seems like it's a combination of different things. So what are those and what are good sources again to get, get the, get the healthy bacteria from?
Andrea: So I love probiotics onto that, that's a really good thing for everyone to take unless it's unless your primary care physician or if you have a GI doctor who advises against that for some reason. But definitely probiotics with those have is the strains of bacteria that help your body grow its own bacteria again, it also helps with inflammation throughout the body. These good bacteria can digest things like oxalate, which anyone who maybe has had kidney stones or something in the past, your body can digest oxalate and digest other things if the bacteria is healthy. Again, I really like certain yogurts that promote the gut bacteria, that's that's a really important one. Again, whole grains, I think that's been the biggest struggle with the American diet is yes, the refined sugars and fatty foods, but so many people are cutting out bread, and rice and pasta and these things that we, we need for whole grains. If there's a good amount of fiber in the products, we're choosing the cotton and the carbohydrate products we’re choosing. So for example, a slice of bread, if at least, has two grams of fiber per slice, then you really want to choose that you don't worry about the car content, you don't worry about that. What you need to focus on is what it's doing for your body.
Shireen: Interesting. Well, this was super informative. Andrea, I got to learn a lot from you. This was really interesting. And any any last thoughts as far as immune health is concerned, anything else you'd like to share on that?
Andrea: I'm kind of how I touched on before, don't wait until you need your immune system to try to build it up. You really, like I said right now is kind of prime time since it's hot outside. The common cold isn't really going around really focused on getting healthy now, before the fall hits when flu and hopefully not but you know, as it stay on the news that COVID could come back in the fall with higher numbers. So it's very important to take control of your health now within the next couple months when your body is really wanting to fight things off.
Shireen: And just a word of caution on that is to say building your immune system doesn't mean you're warding off COVID-19 because there's just we don't know that there are studies out there that prove that it's just a matter of building your body's defense mechanism.
Andrea: Exactly. So what our immune system does, it doesn't say that. Essentially, if you do come in contact with a virus, you're more likely to fight it off and not get sick. You also carry the virus but your body will build up those antibodies a lot faster and you won't actually have all of the symptoms of it. You still are in practice, getting the social-distancing, facemask, hand washing, hand hygiene, everything like that, again, taking a bunch of vitamins doesn't mean you can take your mask off.
Shireen: That's a good one. That's a good one. Alright, so with that, Andrea, I want to thank you so much for your time. Just closing the question for you here is how can people connect with you and learn more about your work?
Andrea: We do have a Facebook page. It's just dietitians of Dallas LLC. We also the website dietitians of Dallas dor com, and our telephone number and email address are in there as well.
Shireen: That's great. And what we're going to do is in the show notes within this episode, we're going to link everything up so people can click it and get right to it.
Andrea: Perfect. Perfect.
Shireen: Well thank you again for your time. Andrea, this was super, super helpful. I truly appreciate you being on the podcast with us today.
Andrea: I want to thank you so much. I had a great time.