We know that hand washing and physical distance can minimize the spread of colds and flu. Can boosting our immune system through the foods we eat make a difference too?
It can’t hurt.
Keeping our immune system, the body’s first defense against infection, in tip-top shape is a good practice. Healthy eating and getting quality sleep are an important part of that process.
Four Steps to Boosting Immune Health With Diet
- Eat foods high in nutrients.
- Boost gut health.
- Choose whole foods over supplements for your nutrition.
- Stay hydrated.
The immune system is best prepared to fight viruses when it is fueled by nutrient-rich foods, and when we avoid foods that weaken it, such as high-fat foods, especially saturated fats.
1. Eat Nutrient-Rich Foods
What are the foods that pack the most nutrition for our immune systems?
• Colorful Fruits & Vegetables
The best foods to support the immune system are those that are high in antioxidants, which protect our bodies from cell damage and harmful levels of inflammation.
Antioxidants such as beta-carotene and vitamins C and E can be found in many foods but are especially plentiful in fruits and vegetables. Look for those that are brightly colored.
Colorful vegetables such as spinach, bell peppers, strawberries, and sweet potatoes, are full of vitamin C, as are citrus fruits like oranges and limes. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant and good for the immune system. Vitamin E is also an important protector of the immune system and it’s found in seeds and nuts.
If getting enough fruit and vegetables into your diet is a challenge for you, five to nine recommended servings per day, add them to breakfast. Vegetables can be added to an omelet or breakfast wrap, and fruit to oatmeal.
To eat more produce, make them as convenient as possible, so you’ll reach for them as a snack. Instead of letting them fall to the back of the refrigerator, chop up veggies as soon as you get home from the grocery store. That way, they are easy to grab and go.
• Lean Protein
While planning your meals, don’t forget your protein, which is also vital to the immune system.
Protein plays an important role in building up immune system cells and antibodies. Also, protein is actively involved in healing and recovery after illness.
Go for leaner protein options over high-fat versions. Plant-based protein, such as beans, nuts and seeds, are great options, as are lean meats, low-fat dairy, eggs and fish.
While restaurant meals typically make protein a meal’s main feature, consider a different approach.
It’s better nutrition to emphasize vegetables and fruit over protein. Make half your plate vegetables and fruits, a quarter protein, and the other quarter whole grains or healthy starch.
Zinc also plays an important role in the immune system. Without it, studies have shown that a person can be more susceptible to disease and illness.
Zinc helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses, and it also helps with wound healing.
The National Institutes of Health report that “zinc deficiency is rare in North America and most Americans get enough zinc from the food they eat.”
Many common foods contain the mineral, including lean meats such as chicken and turkey, some seafoods, whole grains and milk.
2. Feed Your Gut with Probiotics & Prebiotics
While our productive digestive system works hard processing all those nutritious meals and snacks throughout the day, it is also a vital partner to the immune system.
About 75% of your immune-boosting activity starts in the gut, with naturally occurring healthy bacteria, fighting off bad bacteria. It’s important to boost the healthy bacteria with probiotics, while also providing that healthy bacteria the fuel it needs to thrive with prebiotics. Prebiotics are foods that contain dietary fiber.
Many fermented food products contain natural probiotics. Yogurt, kefir, and kombucha are good sources for probiotics. If you can’t tolerate these foods, you may want to take a probiotic supplement once daily. Prebiotics are found in the non-digestible fibers of fruit and veggies, beans and whole grains. Because the body doesn’t process them away, they act as a kind of fuel to help healthy bacteria thrive.
3. Choose Whole Foods Over Supplements
While there are many nutritional supplements to choose from these days, Ward said that if we are eating well-balanced diets rich in nutrients, we generally don’t need to add supplements. Supplements cannot replicate all the nutritional benefits we get from whole foods.
When we get nutrition from whole foods, nutrients work together synergistically to help our bodies absorb nutrition better. Instead of taking a vitamin C supplement, eat an orange, because the orange contains other important components like phytochemicals and fiber.
What about those times when we just don’t eat as well as we should? For those times, consider two supplements. A general multivitamin is a good insurance policy, especially when you aren’t eating a balanced diet. Take only the recommended dose.
Vitamin D is the other supplement because it plays an important role in regulating immune function and it is hard to find in foods. In the Pacific Northwest, we can’t always rely on getting our vitamin D from the sun.
If you take supplements, stick to 100% of the Percent Daily Value unless directed otherwise by your health care professional.
Whole foods are still the best choice to get what your body needs.
4. Stay Hydrated
Finally, don’t forget to pay attention to proper hydration to keep your immune system functioning at the optimal level.
Keeping hydrated with fluids is important to maintain regular body temperature and helps to eliminate bacteria through the gastrointestinal tract.
While the amount to drink each day depends on a number of factors, such as activity levels and body weight, the most common recommendation is a half-gallon or eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day.
You can choose a fluid other than water, if you want. Beverages such as no-sugar-added drinks, sparkling water, Jell-O, soup, tea, broth, milk and juice also count as good choices for fluids.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is one important step to support your body in fighting viruses but having an optimally functioning immune system takes a multi-pronged approach.
Avoid smoking, get plenty of sleep and manage stress effectively to best support your body. The more you can do to support your body’s immune system, the better it can support you.
If you’re interested in building your immune system through nutrition, talk with your primary care provider about whether nutrition counseling is right for you.
Read more about probiotics.