Earth is calling... Ellen van der Gaag

A well-functioning immune system makes you resilient to infection with viruses. The corona crisis shows us the importance of being resilient. Ellen van der Gaag, paediatrician at Ziekenhuisgroep Twente (Twente Hospital Group, ZGT) and PhD candidate at the TechMed Centre of the University of Twente, has researched the influence of food on the immune system of children. The result of this research: green vegetables, full-fat dairy products and beef make children resilient. 

In short

  • A good resistance reduces the chance of getting sick
  • ZGT paediatrician Ellen van der Gaag researched the influence of food on recurrent respiratory infections in children.
  • Children become more resistant against viruses by eating enough green vegetables, full-fat dairy products and beef every week.

Global Goal

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Green vegetables, full-fat milk products and beef. When children get enough of these products, this will have a positive effect on their resistance. It is the conclusion of ZGT paediatrician Ellen van der Gaag’s research. A simple change in the diet of a child can give an enormous boost to their immune system. It helps prevent children from getting a cold or a throat or ear infection, but may also help with serious infections like the COVID-19 virus.

Socially relevant research

Ellen has been working on her research since 2014. She was supposed to obtain her PhD this month at the TechMed Centre of the University of Twente. Although this was cancelled due to the circumstances, Ellen thought it was essential to already share the results of her research, given the current events.

Pure and unprocessed food

Ellen often saw young children with a cough, a cold or a fever in her doctor’s office. These children were struggling for large parts of the year without having a medically proven cause, so Ellen started an investigation. Parents of these children between the ages of one and five years old received a questionnaire. After analysing the answers, it became clear that children who often had infections ate much fewer vegetables and beef. She also noticed a trend of eating less pure and unprocessed food. Ellen thinks this is a symptom of the time we live in; “We used to just eat what we had. The food in supermarkets is often processed nowadays. It is less pure and less natural.”

Positive results

After further research, experiments were conducted to determine whether eating beef at least three times a week, vegetables five times a week, full-fat milk or full-fat yoghurt daily and dairy butter on bread daily would bring a change to the lives of children who were often ill. The results were positive; the children’s health problems decreased after only four weeks. “And the difference only got bigger in the months that followed”, says Ellen. At first, the examined children were sick for an average of 14.8 days per half-year. This was reduced to just 4.8 days after adjusting their diets. In general, children also felt better and more energetic.


“Many parents were concerned about their children’s cholesterol levels after they started eating full-fat dairy products. We investigated this and found that the cholesterol profile does not change unfavourably.” The study also shows that their weight or BMI (Body Mass Index) does not increase after starting with the dietary advice, in comparison to a control group. This could be caused by, among other things, the fact that full-fat dairy replaces the sweet, flavoured milk. In addition, full-fat milk has more saturation, while sweet dairy drinks leave you wanting more.”


“Green vegetables contain many nutrients, minerals and vitamins. Their green colour comes from so-called chloroplasts. These chloroplasts appear to have an important effect. They work as an anti-inflammatory. Also, children need more protein than adults. No cause for concern for vegetarians and flexitarians: “Adults can easily replace these proteins with other foods.”  


Ellen’s research has not gone unnoticed in Italy in light of the corona crisis. Her research was quoted in an opinion piece about the COVID-19 virus by Italian scientists this month. According to these scientists, a healthy diet is crucial in the fight against all viruses, including the coronavirus. According to them, we should have more ways of fighting infectious diseases. Paying more attention to food can make an important contribution.

Date: 27 March 2020 |

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