At the end of a long shift, it’s tempting to grab junk food because it’s easy and quick. But processed, fatty foods can affect your concentration and general performance.
Healthcare workers are taking strain right now, but the more you look after your nutritional needs, the better you’ll be able to cope on your shifts – physically and mentally. ‘Your immune system needs lots of amino acids, fatty acids, phytonutrients, minerals and vitamins to function optimally. It can do nothing with junk food,’ explains Ilsabe Spoelstra, a dietician at Mediclinic Bloemfontein.
Junk food usually consists of refined starches, bad fats and sugar, all of which contain empty energy. This means your body isn’t getting important micro-nutrients like magnesium and thiamine. ‘When you need to rely on your immune system, you need nutrient-dense food,’ Spoelstra says. ‘Junk food is also low in fibre, which means you’re not getting the right amounts essential for good bacteria [probiotics] and a healthy gut.’
During stressful times, your body produces corticosteroids, which can suppress the immune system because this lowers the production of lymphocytes – the white blood cells that are also your body’s main type of immune cells. You can counteract this process by eating wholesome foods. To ensure you produce enough lymphocytes, T-helper cells, CD4 cells, and natural killer cells that control viral infections, you need adequate amounts of protein, iron, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, B vitamins, Vitamin C, Vitamin D, selenium, zinc, copper, folate, and more.
Optimal protein intake is important, which means eating meat, fish, chicken, milk, cheese and yoghurt. ‘Eggs contain phospholipids, which help keep your cell membranes healthy,’ Spoelstra says. ‘Protein contributes cysteine, an important component of glutathione, which is a master endogenous antioxidant.’
Quick tip: On your day off, prepare a large pot of a basic mincemeat, chicken or beef strips. Store in small portions in the freezer to defrost in the evenings when you return home. Add fresh vegetables for a stew, soup or stirfry.
To ensure you have enough phytonutrients in your diet, eat lots of fruit and veg.
Quick tip: If you have a liquidiser, make a daily smoothie to take to work – preferably 60-70% vegetables and 30-40% fruit. Add a pinch of Vitamin C powder as a natural preservative – it can then last up to three days in the fridge. Use a wide variety of all colours, including berries, pineapple, broccoli and kale. Add ample quantities of turmeric, ginger and cayenne pepper to dishes or smoothies as these ingredients have anti-inflammatory properties.
Drink water regularly and avoid processed foods, which contain high levels of chemicals and preservatives.
Remember, food is preventative medicine in many cases.