Every day, as we learn more and more about what makes the COVID-19 virus tick, we also learn more about what we can do to minimize our exposure and stay safe. Though we haven’t fully cracked the code and the end of the pandemic still feels a long way off, we do understand the three most important things we can do right now to protect ourselves: tame the inflammation the virus takes advantage of; get underlying health problems under control; eat to feed the good bacteria in your gut so they can keep your immune system operating at its absolute peak.

Not paying attention can have dire consequences. For example, the New York Times just reported on a new study of thousands of hospitalized coronavirus patients in the New York City area which found that nearly all of them had at least one major chronic health condition, and most — 88 percent — had at least two. Whatever the diagnosis, an unhealthy metabolism is usually lurking behind it. Even if you don’t have a severe metabolic disorder like diabetes, consider that about a third of Americans have a vulnerable metabolism, or ‘metabolic syndrome,’ defined by the Mayo Clinic as a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist, and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. I urge you to focus on getting these problems under control right away. There’s no time to waste, particularly if there are more COVID-19 spikes in the months ahead (which seems fairly likely).

Simply put, what you eat matters. Granted, eating crap has never been a good idea, but now, a diet loaded with sugar, processed foods, starchy foods, factory-farmed animals and pesticide-laden produce is riskier than ever.

Here are few thoughts on how to ‘let food be thy medicine,’ and where to start:

Sugar is your enemy, and a friend to viruses.

While some people may tolerate carbs a bit better than others, nobody does well with a high-sugar diet which is what you’re buying into if you’re eating lots of processed and junk foods. The more sugar and starch you eat, the more insulin your body has to produce to get the sugar out of the blood and into your cells. Over time, the cells grow resistant to all that insulin, or “insulin resistant,” which sends your body down the inflammation highway. The last stop? Diabetes. But even garden-variety higher-than-normal blood sugar compromises your immune system and likely makes your body more vulnerable to microbial invaders, including COVID. What’s the answer? First step would be to trade sugar, processed foods, and grains for moderate amounts of fiber-rich whole food carbs like sweet potatoes, beans or root veggies. But if you are carbohydrate intolerant or have metabolic syndrome or maybe just getting older, you may well have to slash these what we consider healthy foods to a minimum as well.

Keep your gut strong, and your body well-defended.

Simple, quickly-absorbed carbs – or sugar in any form – feeds the bad bacteria in your gut, which in turn weakens the gut wall by making it more permeable (aka ‘leaky gut’), allowing particles to slip through and into the bloodstream. So that’s another way the Standard American diet (SAD) weakens your immune system and triggers inflammation. But diet isn’t the only thing that can throw your microbiome, and your whole body, under the bus. Lack of sleep, too much stress, too much weight around the middle can all help send your body in inflammatory overdrive. Typically, chronic inflammation takes a while to develop and often, there are no obvious signs to let you know it’s ‘flame-on.’ Instead, you may suffer from low-grade symptoms like allergies, gut problems (bloating, constipation, IBS, etc.) or joint pain.

While inflammation is the body’s natural protective response to injury, when it becomes chronic, it’s linked with an increased risk for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease, to name a few. And now, with an increasing number of studies finding links between high rates of inflammation and poor COVID-19 outcomes, the rush to tame it has never been more urgent. When an opportunistic infection like COVID-19 takes up residence in someone whose system is already inflamed, hormone-like molecules called ‘cytokines’ (which normally can be helpful for healing acute injury or damage) can easily over-react to the viral threat, setting off the dreaded ‘cytokine storm’ – the syndrome that has landed so many people in the ICU during the pandemic.

Maximize foods-with-benefits.

Certain foods are your superstar defenders against inflammation. They are rich in nutrients and offer anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal protection. Not only will these naturally medicinal foods get your body into pathogen-fighting form, they’ll also enhance your entire metabolism by helping to keep blood sugar in the healthy range. My advice: buy organic or farmers’ market fresh whenever possible. I’ve color-coded these foods to make them easier to remember.

White: Think onions, garlic, cauliflower, to boost the immune system, help fight off infection and tamp down inflammation, thanks to their rich supplies of sulfur and anthoxanthins.

Green: Spinach, broccoli, kale, avocados, artichokes, arugula, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, green peppers, peas and zucchini.

Yellow: Yellow peppers, lemons and yellow winter squash, to deliver a nice dose of vitamin C and bioflavonoids which will support immunity and help keep inflammation in check.

Orange: Carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash.

Red: tomatoes, red bell peppers, red kidney beans, radishes, radicchio, red onion.

Purple: Purple cabbage, eggplant, blueberries, blackberries.

Browns: Nuts have the kinds of healthy fats that tame inflammation, so have a daily handful of preferably raw, unroasted, unsalted almonds, walnuts, pistachios or cashews.

Design your perfect plate.

To cut inflammation down to size, go heaviest on veggies and add a solid serving of ‘good’ fats. Protein should take up the least space on your plate, just a palm sized portion is plenty. Keep in mind that over-indulging in protein tends to trigger weight gain, which then feeds into and exacerbates other the other aspects of metabolic syndrome, so use a light touch. Here’s how to build a perfect plate:

  1. Pile on non-starchy vegetables: Eat raw, cooked, fermented or sprouted. If you’re including legumes, lentils, or grains, keep portion sizes small (as in a little scoop, like a condiment) and soak and/or sprout them, or use a pressure cooker to reduce their inflammatory lectin content. Remember, all those veggies on your plate benefit your gut microbiome by adding prebiotic fiber and, if fermented, probiotic bacteria – meaning less inflammation for you.
  2. Embrace healthy fats: Your body needs good fats to function, which, on your plate means high-quality, healthy animal products (see above) and plant foods like avocado, coconut, nuts and nut butters, seeds, olives and high-quality extra virgin olive oil; cooking fats like ghee; butter; duck fat; pork fat; chicken fat; tallow; sustainably-sourced palm oil and avocado oil.
  3. Indulge in small amounts of high-quality proteins: Opt for grass-fed and/or -finished meats; organic or pastured poultry; wild-caught, oily fish; pasture-raised or organic eggs; organic dairy (if tolerated); nuts and seeds; bone broth. If you get most of your protein from legumes like lentils and beans, keep portions small and avoid soy, unless it’s in fermented condiment form.

Up your anti-inflammatory spice game.

When it comes to adding flavor, pouring on the spices is the easiest way to give every meal an instant anti-inflammatory upgrade. Beyond adding delicious flavors and aromas, many spices also help tame inflammation – so enjoy liberally. Keep in mind though, dry spices have a shelf life, roughly 1 -3 years depending on the spice. Over time, the benefits will degrade, so periodically refresh your spice rack with new, preferably organic, fair trade stock. Among my favorite anti-inflammatories: 

1) Basil

Basil, the aromatic cornerstone of many Italian dishes, has strong anti-inflammatory properties, and also happens to be delicious, dried or fresh. For a different take, use it fresh, as a salad green, in soups, stews and even sandwiches.

2) Black Pepper

Black pepper, and more specifically the alkaloid piperline found in peppercorns, helps tame inflammation while also enhancing the bioavailability of some vitamins and minerals in the foods and spices you eat. For example, when pepper is used with curcumin, the piperine can double or even triple the bioavailability of curcumin. To extract the most benefit, grind the peppercorns as you go, versus using the pre-ground stuff.

3) Cayenne Pepper

Cayenne contains capsaicin, the substance in chili peppers that brings the heat, as well as the anti-inflammatory effects. Adding chili peppers, fresh or dried, is a great way to fight fire (the slow burn of inflammation) with fire, adding a jolt of savory hotness to soups and stews, just about any egg or fish dish, and, of course, chili.

4) Cardamom

A common staple in pumpkin spice mix blends, this sweet and pungent spice comes complete with phytochemicals that have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antimicrobial abilities. The easiest way to add it to your repertoire? Sprinkle some into your coffee or chai tea.

5) Cilantro & Coriander

Either fresh or dried, ‘coriander,’ also known as cilantro, is a tasty triple threat, offering anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-inflammatory effects. Though most people know it from Mexican, Indian and Southeast Asian dishes, it also works as a mix-in leafy green in salads, salsas, guacamole, coleslaw and home-made salad dressings.

6) Cinnamon

An easy spice to enjoy daily, cinnamon gives an anti-inflammatory, slightly sweet, sugar-free boost to savory soups and curries, as well as to your morning coffee or chai tea. It also has antioxidant and antimicrobial powers.

7) Cloves

Cloves contain chemicals that can help tame inflammation, but other than poking them into an orange, what to do with them? Add them to Indian dishes, like biriyani, curry dishes and chutneys. You can also try adding a clove or two to soups, stews and morning smoothies. 

8) Rosemary

Known for its brain health protective properties, rosemary is also a rich source of anti-inflammatory compounds as well as antioxidants, which play an important role in neutralizing free radicals.

9) Turmeric

Turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful antioxidant that helps limit the production of inflammation-triggering cytokines. It may also help prevent or slow the development Alzheimer’s disease, so take advantage.

Here’s to eating well and staying well!

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