A healthy immune system is what makes the difference between getting sick, say, once a year, and coming down with colds and other illnesses on a regular basis. Much of society’s renewed interest in immunity is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what can you do to actively support your immune system?
“No single food is going to prevent you from getting sick, but focusing on an overall nutrient-rich dietary pattern and healthier lifestyle behaviors, like adequate sleep, hand-washing, physical activity, and stress management, can help keep your immune system working at its best,” says Michelle Cardel, PhD, MS, RD, director of global clinical research and nutrition at WW.
Although many people fall into the trap of believing that an endless supply of supplements is the gateway to a pristine immune system, just about any dietitian will tell you that you should first try boosting your immunity with solid, wholesome foods and healthy teas.
Immunity boosting foods to eat
1. Citrus Fruits
What’s the first nutrient you think about when you start to feel the slightest inkling that you might be getting sick? Vitamin C, of course! According to registered dietitian Carissa Galloway, a Premier Protein nutrition consultant and personal trainer, vitamin C—which can be found in citrus fruits like oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit—is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a vital role in supporting a healthy immune system.
“First and foremost, Vitamin C is an essential vitamin, meaning that your body cannot create this micronutrient on its own and therefore, must obtain it through diet in order to get all of the impressive benefits,” she explains, noting that research has shown that low Vitamin C levels are indicative of poorer health outcomes.“Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, which keeps your immune system strong by protecting your body from free radicals. Vitamin C also supports the production of white blood cells called lymphocytes and phagocytes, which work to protect your body against infection.”
Protein is a must. High-protein foods like seafood, chicken, beans, unsalted nuts and seeds can be beneficial for your immune health, Dr. Cardel touts eggs as one of the best options, thanks to their “variety of bioactive compounds that can influence anti-inflammatory pathways in the body.”
Not a huge fan of eggs? No problem! Galloway says that other protein-rich foods, including ready-to-drink protein shakes, can also work to boost immunity. “I love adding a ready-to-drink protein shake into my morning coffee to add a boost of satiating protein and flavor,” she says. “Plus, when I find options that have [plenty of] vitamins and minerals including antioxidants vitamins C and E, which help support a healthy immune system as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, I know I’m making a smart (and delicious) addition to my morning routine.”
In addition to being a good source of protein, Dr. Cardel says that salmon is a healthy fatty fish packed with vitamin D, “which helps in regulating and strengthening immunity, and can help prevent respiratory tract infections,” she explains. If you enjoy salmon (or fish in general), Dr. Cardel says that you should aim to eat at least four ounces twice a week. “Milk and 100 percent juices that are fortified with vitamin D can also be a good source of this immune-boosting nutrient,” she adds.
According to NYC-based registered dietitian Jennifer Maeng, RD, oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food. “Zinc plays an important role in immune function as it is crucial in normal development and function of cells known as neutrophils and large granular lymphocytes (LGL),” she says. According to research a deficiency in zinc can lead to a progression in certain forms of cancer, so it’s definitely worth adding to your diet.
Luckily for us, garlic is not only delicious but incredibly good for your immune system, too. “Allicin, an organosulfur compound found in crushed garlic, has antimicrobial properties,” Maeng says. “Allicin also helps with the absorption of zinc which [as mentioned] is crucial for immune function. Next time you cook with garlic, remember to add a little more for your immune system.”
6. Greek Yogurt
Protein is packed into Greek yogurt, but so are probiotics, whichDr. Cardel says are “‘good’ bacteria that can promote immune health.” The beauty of Greek yogurt is that it can be eaten daily, and it can be incorporated into almost any meal. Where it can serve as a standalone snack topped with granola for breakfast, it can be used in place of sour cream on taco night, as well as to make ice cream and dough, among many other tasty dishes.
Add a little crunch to your salad and a major boost to your immunity with the simple addition of carrots in your diet. “Carrots are a rich source of vitamin A,” Dr. Cardel says. “Vitamin A is known as the ‘anti-inflammation vitamin’ because it keeps your skin and tissues throughout your body healthy and functioning, and research shows it plays a critical role in enhancing immune function.”
Popeye knew what he was doing! “Spinach is rich in vitamin C and antioxidants like vitamin A,” Galloway reiterates, noting that both are essential for a strong immune system. “Most Americans aren’t getting enough vegetables in their daily diet, so I always encourage my clients to incorporate this beneficial leafy green whenever possible.” Whether you add it into a delicious pasta dish for dinner or into your smoothie at breakfast, Galloway says that it will pay off.
Maeng says that pineapple is another must-have immune-boosting food. In addition to being chock full of vitamin C, pineapple is a source of bromelain, which boosts the immune system by preventing cancer, blood clots, and other serious ailments. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory benefits as a whole.
10. Brazil Nuts
Brazil nuts are rich in selenium and, according to Maeng, selenium is one of the keys to a healthy immune system. “You can meet 100 percent of your daily selenium requirement with just one brazil nut per day,” she says. “I like to recommend my clients to eat one brazil nut daily because selenium is important for thyroid function, but it’s also a powerful antioxidant. It’s been shown that adequate selenium intake is associated with enhanced immune function.” That said, you don’t want to overconsume the ingredient, as it can lead to selenium toxicity. “Just one a day is perfect for adults,” Maeng says.
11. Sunflower seeds
Packed with both selenium and zinc, Maeng says that sunflower seeds are a fantastic food for your immune system. “You can add them to your warm oatmeal, salad, grain bowls, or even make nutty and cream dips with them,” she says. Or you can take the old-fashioned route and eat them on their own as a snack.
Although some people prefer apples without their peels, Galloway says that when it comes to supporting your immune system, you want to gobble them down. “Apple skin contains quercetin, a phytochemical that can support immune health and reduce inflammation,” she says. “Apples also have pectin, which is a prebiotic and promotes gut health. As we learn more about our gut, we continue to find a direct correlation between a healthy gut and immunity.”
Beans are a good source of protein—especially glutamine, Maeng says. “Black beans, lentils are all great sources of L-glutamine, an essential amino acid that fuels your body’s white blood cells,” she explains. “You can try vegetarian chili with beans, creamy Dal, or black bean burgers to increase your L-glutamine intake.”
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