By Jenny Gann – Loveland, Colorado … ‘You are what you eat’ is a phrase we toss around to encourage someone to eat healthier. But have you really thought about it? Does the food and drink we consume really affect our health, or is this just an old adage that is outdated and not true?

Health is on the forefront of many people’s thoughts due to the current COVID-19 pandemic. It is estimated that seven percent of Google searches are related to a health topic. The most common topic searched is boosting one’s immune system. So, if it is true that we are what we eat, what do I need to eat to make myself healthier?

Searching the research databases and the internet one common theme emerges regarding foods that boost one’s immune system: they are all plant based. Not one food listed, on any site, is processed. Also, if you look at the nutritional makeup of plant-based foods, they are inherently low in fat. So, a low-fat, plant-based diet will boost your immune system and help prevent you from getting sick. An interesting study looked at vegetarians versus non-vegetarians and their levels of white blood cells. The body requires white blood cells to make antibodies against bacteria and viruses. So, the higher your white blood cell count, the better your body will be at fighting against invading bacteria and viruses, and the less sick you will be. The study showed that those who ate a vegetarian diet had significantly higher white blood cell counts as compared to non-vegetarians.

Unfortunately, our society bombards us with advertisements for foods that are not low-fat and plant-based. Companies spend billions of dollars each year marketing unhealthy, ultra-processed, high-calorie and high-fat foods. One of the most common means used to sway you is through commercials. Fifty percent of commercials are promoting ultra-processed foods. How do these ultra-processed foods affect your body?

One common element of all ultra-processed foods is that they are high in sugar. Sugar has a negative effect on your immune system. Sugar acts like a stun gun on your body’s cells. It stuns them into a cell coma, and they do not do their jobs. So those oh so important white blood cells we talked about that fight off bacteria and viruses, well, they are out of commission after consuming high-sugar foods and drinks. So now your body’s defenses are gone, and the intruders have free reign to take over your body and make you sick. The effect of sugar on the cells can last for several hours. So, if you are consuming high-sugar foods or drinks several times a day, you are keeping your white blood cells in a permanent coma and they never have the chance to do their job to fight off the intruding bacteria and viruses and you get sick.

So, does what you eat make a difference in your health? I’d say the research is pretty strong supporting a diet that is low in sugar and processed foods and high in plant-based foods.

–Jenny Gann, RN, OTR/L is Campion Academy’s nurse; photo by Rajmund Dabrowski