7 Foods to Eat Every Day for a Healthy Immune System
Talk to any medical professional, and they'll tell you that there is no such thing as "curing" a virus. Viruses are tiny germs that replicate in our body using our cells, and as such, are difficult to target with a specific treatment. The only defense against them is our own immune system. Unlike bacteria, which can be killed off with antibiotics, viral infections (including the coronavirus) are ailments that our bodies just have to fight off on their own.
And while that may seem worrisome, there are some things we can do to boost our immune systems naturally, giving our bodies a better chance of recovering from viral infections sooner. Not to mention, the stronger your immune response, the milder your symptoms will be, too.
On the front lines of this effort to boost your immune system are three incredibly important factors: quality sleep, regular exercise, and a healthy diet. Yes, it is crucial to maintain an optimal immune-boosting diet during a viral pandemic like the one we are currently experiencing. Although there is no such thing as foods that kill viruses, there are some foods that can boost your immune response to viral attacks.
"While specific foods will not prevent you from getting sick if you are exposed to a virus, ensuring you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals from your daily diet is a key factor in maintaining a strong immune system. Then your system can properly fight illness, potentially reduce its severity, and speed up recovery." says Rachel Berman, RD and general manager of VeryWellFit.
If you can just get these 7 foods and food groups into your diet every day, you'll build up a healthy immune system in no time.
Foods rich in vitamin C
Most of us know that vitamin C is crucial for a good immune response. But it's especially important when our bodies are under a viral attack. "There is evidence-based science that suggests boosting vitamin C and probiotics can help support recovery from viral infections," says Jennifer Tyler Lee, a nutrition expert and co-author of Half the Sugar, All the Love.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin C for women is 75 milligrams, and 90 milligrams for men. To that end, increasing your consumption of vitamin C–rich foods like oranges is a good strategy during this time. But Tyler Lee notes other foods we may not think of as potent vitamin C sources are really good options, too. "It's not just citrus fruits that deliver a dose of this immune-boosting vitamin. Other common foods, that are likely already in your fridge or freezer, can give a boost to your immune system: strawberries, mangoes, and green vegetables including spinach, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts" she notes.
So get to juicing and cooking! Try our 5 Recipes for Brussels Sprouts, Mango-Ginger Overnight Oats, The Easiest Garlic-Lemon Spinach, and 15-Minute Parmesan-Roasted Broccoli.
Foods rich in zinc
Melissa Morris, CEP, a certified nutritionist and nutrition professor with Compare Life Insurance, lists zinc as one of her top recommendations for immune-boosting nutrients. "Zinc helps with immunity because it supports the activity of immune cells and the production of antibodies against pathogens, which includes viruses." She suggests adding whole grains, like whole grain cereals, brown rice, and oats to your diet in order to get the optimal amount of the nutrient. However, she cautions sticking to food sources of zinc as opposed to supplements, "High amounts of zinc supplements can cause adverse effects, so it's recommended to get zinc from your diet."
Try one of our 50 Healthy Overnight Oats Recipes, or stock up on Best Healthy Cereal Options.
Prebiotics and probiotics
When it comes to a healthy diet, maintaining gut health is right up there with the most important basics. Your microbiome—the microorganisms living in your gut—helps control crucial functions like nutrient absorption and inflammation processes. An imbalance in the gut flora can lead to digestive issues and other health problems like IBS, obesity, and diabetes. While you may not think of gut health when you think of preventing the seasonal flu, Berman notes that it plays a role in boosting your immune response, "Research shows that probiotics can help promote the production of natural antibodies and can optimize the body's immune response to viral infection."
To maintain gut health, load your diet with foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics. This includes fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, and kombucha, and dairy products such as kefir and yogurt. Berman also recommends artichokes, mushrooms, and asparagus as good veggie sources of the vital nutrients.
Try one of our 20 Amazing Yogurt Smoothie Recipes, 23 Healthy Mushroom Recipes, or pick up one of 10 Best Store-Bought Kombuchas.
Foods rich in vitamin D
Besides playing an important role in helping your immune system function normally, some studies have shown that vitamin D is specifically linked to decreased chances of developing the flu, which is a viral infection. Morris echoes this and recommends adding foods rich in vitamin D, like low-fat yogurt and milk, to your daily diet. Other good sources of vitamin D include tuna, salmon, and other fatty fish, liver, egg yolks, cheese, and items fortified with vitamin D, like soy milk and orange juice.
Try our 70+ Best Egg Recipes, 20+ Healthy Salmon Recipes, 13 Healthy Things You Can Make with a Can of Tuna.
Although we don't have conclusive scientific evidence that garlic is an antiviral food, studies have shown that garlic can mitigate the chances of getting a cold or flu, as well as reduce the severity of symptoms.
Garlic is also a highly-regarded immune-boosting ingredient in several alternative medicine practices. "Garlic has been studied for many years, even centuries. It has been reported to possess several biological properties including anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant, anti-diabetic, reno-protective, anti-atherosclerotic, antibacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-hypertensive," says Mary Shackelton, MPH, ND, a naturopathic doctor in Boulder, Colorado. She recommends consuming garlic in its raw form, as "cooking destroys some of the potent immune boosting effects." She suggests chopping up 3 to 4 garlic cloves and adding them to pasta dishes, salad dressings, or as a topping on baked potatoes."
We can't stress this enough—maintaining a healthy GI tract is an important part of improving the overall health of your immune system. Dietitian Caroline Eleanor Burkholder, MS, RD, LD, recommends a high-fiber diet as a good way to boost overall health and better prepare your body to fight off illnesses. "Because most immune cells are differentiated in the GI tract, maintaining a fiber-rich diet with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can optimize immune function," she notes.
To start consuming more fiber, get our list of 43 Fiber-Rich Foods for Healthy Diet, and try our 50 Healthy Overnight Oats Recipes.
Elderberries are a superfood rich in antioxidants, but some studies show they may also possess therapeutic properties against the flu virus. They're low in calories but rich in fiber and vitamin C, which are both important in fighting illness. Burkholder notes the potential anti-viral benefits of elderberries, but with some caution, "Research has indicated that elderberries and a high fiber diet can protect against the flu virus, however these were not randomized controlled trials. More research is needed to verify the external validity of these findings."
Try adding elderberries or a powdered elderberry supplement to one of our 53 Best Ever Breakfast Smoothie Recipes for a strong start to your day!