How to Eat Healthy to Support Your Immune System

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You may have seen ads for miracle immunity booster foods or supplements. But can certain foods really improve how well your immune system works?

The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells and proteins that work together to protect your body from infection and diseases. When harmful bacteria, viruses or toxins enter your body, it’s up to your immune system to fight them off. 

When it comes to “boosting” your immune system, there are a few things you can do that make a big difference. For example, vaccines can teach your immune system to fight certain diseases. So if you really want to boost your immune system, start by keeping up-to-date on vaccines like your annual flu shot and COVID-19 vaccines

The other main way to support your immune system is to stay healthy in general. And that means getting plenty of sleep, staying active and eating a healthy balanced diet to give your body all the nutrients it needs.

Forget Specific “Immunity Booster Foods” — Focus on Variety and Balance

There’s no single magical food that will boost your immune system or protect you from getting sick. But you can make healthy eating choices and try to get more of the foods that keep your immune system working well.

For example, the following nutrients are key to supporting your immune system:

  • Iron 
  • Zinc
  • Folate (also called folic acid
  • Selenium
  • Copper
  • Vitamins A, B, C, D and E
  • Probiotics 

You can get these nutrients from a healthy, varied diet including plenty of fruits and vegetables, animal and plant-based proteins, and dairy products or fermented foods. 

Read on for some examples of foods with essential nutrients for a healthy immune system. Just remember that there’s no specific diet you need to follow to get these nutrients. You can get the immune support you need from any varied, balanced diet that includes a range of healthy foods.

How Protein Foods Can Support Immunity

Many protein sources contain selenium, an antioxidant that reduces inflammation and supports immunity. Animal-based proteins like meat, fish and poultry also have vitamin A, which helps cells spread in the body as part of an effective immune response. And plant-based proteins like beans have folate, which is key to healthy blood cells. Each protein source also contains a range of other essential vitamins and minerals.

  • Red meat (like beef and lamb) is high in iron, which helps your immune cells spread to fight infections. Liver meat from these animals is a good source of iron and also has the most copper per serving of any food. Your immune system needs copper to defend against bacteria.
  • Poultry (like chicken and turkey) has zinc, which helps your body fight infections and heal wounds. It also has vitamin B6, which helps produce white blood cells and T-cells that regulate immune responses.
  • Oily or fatty fish (like salmon, tuna and sardines) have vitamin B6 and vitamin D, which has an anti-inflammatory effect and helps immune cells function.
  • Shellfish (like crab, lobster and mussels) has zinc. Oysters are a bit of an immunity superstar of the sea, as they’re rich in selenium, iron, copper, zinc and Vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 is important for making red blood cells.
  • Legumes, beans and lentils (like kidney beans, edamame and chickpeas) are a good source of iron and folate. Folate works together with vitamin B12 to form healthy red blood cells. Chickpeas are a top choice for plant-based protein as they have iron, zinc, vitamin B6 and folate.
  • Nuts and seeds (like almonds, Brazil nuts and sunflower seeds) are a great source of vitamin E and also offer antioxidants and healthy fats. Brazil nuts also have selenium and zinc, making them a good choice for nourishing your immune system. Sunflower seeds have selenium, vitamin E and vitamin B6. So these are also a good choice for immune support.

How Fruit and Veggies Can Support Immunity

You may have heard that you should “eat a rainbow” for a healthy diet. And the same is true for supporting your immune system. When it comes to fruits and veggies, aim for a variety of colorful options to get all the nutrients you need.

  • Citrus fruits (like oranges, lemons and grapefruits) all provide a decent dose of vitamin C and folate. But if you’re going for a big burst of vitamin C, try a kiwi — it has almost twice as much as an orange.
  • Berries (like blueberries, strawberries and elderberries) are also a good source of vitamin C and antioxidants — and it’s easy to throw some berries in breakfast dishes or eat them as a quick snack.
  • Melon-like fruits (like watermelon, cantaloupe and papaya) have good amounts of vitamins A, C, and folate.
  • Green leafy vegetables (like spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, and broccoli) have many of the vitamins you need for immune health. Two standouts from this bunch are spinach (high in vitamin C, E and copper) and broccoli (high in vitamin A, C, iron and antioxidants).  
  • Orange and red vegetables (like sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and bell peppers) are all good sources of vitamins A and C. 
  • Other veggies (like garlic and ginger) have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory powers. Certain types of mushrooms like button and shitake also offer a dose of vitamin B6, selenium, zinc and copper.

How Probiotics From Dairy or Fermented Foods Can Help

Dairy products are also good for your immune health since many contain probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms or “good” bacteria that help digestion and support your immune system. You can find probiotics in dairy products like yogurt and kefir — or in fermented foods like miso and sauerkraut.

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