We know the importance of hand washing, physical distancing and wearing face masks to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Can boosting our immune system through the foods we eat make a difference too?
It can’t hurt.
While there are no medications, supplements or vaccines to prevent or cure the coronavirus at this time, keeping our immune system, the body’s first defense against infection, in tip-top shape is a good practice, pandemic or not.
To eat right for immune health, Dietitian Mica Ward of offers four key suggestions:
- 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,” Ward said.
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,” she said.
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,” said Ward. “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, Ward has a few tips.
“Vegetables are not something that most of us crave, so to get our five to nine recommended servings per day, we need to add them to breakfast. Vegetables can be added to an omelet or breakfast wrap, and fruit to oatmeal.
“To eat more produce, we need to make them as convenient as possible, so we’ll reach for them as a snack,” Ward said. “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.”
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,” Ward noted.
Go for leaner protein options over high-fat versions, she said. “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, Ward suggests 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,” she said.
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,” said Ward.
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.”
Ward noted that many common foods contain the mineral, including “lean meats such as chicken and turkey, some seafoods, whole grains and milk.”
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,” said Ward. “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,” Ward said. “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.”
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,” Ward said.
“When we get our nutrition from whole foods all those nutrients work together synergistically to help our bodies absorb nutrition better,” she noted. “So 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, Ward suggests two supplements.
“A general multivitamin is a good insurance policy, especially when you aren’t eating a balanced diet,” she says. “Take only the recommended dose; you don’t need mega quantities.
“Vitamin D is the other supplement I recommend because it plays an important role in regulating immune function and it is hard to find in foods,” Ward said. “Also, here in the Pacific Northwest we can’t always rely on getting our vitamin D from the sun.”
If you take supplements, Ward recommends sticking to 100% of the Percent Daily Value unless directed otherwise by your health care professional.
“For the most part, try to get what your body needs from whole foods; it is the best choice,” she noted.
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,” Ward said.
“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,” Ward said.
You can choose a fluid other than water, if you want, Ward said.
“Beverages such as no-sugar-added drinks, sparkling water, Jell-O, soup, tea, broth, milk and juice also count as good choices for fluids,” she said.
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.
“It goes without saying that we must also avoid smoking, get plenty of sleep and manage stress effectively to best support our bodies,” Ward noted. “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.