What To Eat For A Healthy Immune System
You can support your body’s infection-fighting system by eating these healthy foods.
First, the facts: Science hasn’t discovered a food or supplement that will guarantee you won’t get an illness. And until there are studies evaluating the impact of nutrients and overall diets on COVID-19 outcomes, “we cannot yet make medical nutrition evidence-based recommendations to consider for treatment,” says Elizabeth Hanna, R.D., clinical nutrition manager for Hackensack University Medical Center.
What research has determined, however, is that a nutrient-rich diet will keep the body’s immune system functioning at its best, ready to fight off bacterial and viral invaders. When it comes to supporting the immune system, some nutrients are more equal than others. The best way to get them, experts say, is almost always through the food you eat, rather than through supplements. Here are seven nutrients that are especially beneficial for the immune system, and what to eat to be sure you get enough of them.
BETA CAROTENE, a red-orange pigment found in some plants, converts into vitamin A in the body. Beta carotene is an antioxidant, a type of substance that protects cells against damage. It’s found naturally in sweet potatoes, carrots, red and green peppers, dark, leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli, liver and fish oils.
VITAMIN B6 is important, especially in older individuals, in helping the body produce antibodies, blood proteins that are formed to attack bacteria and viruses, Hanna says. Good sources include tuna and salmon, canned chickpeas, bananas, beef liver, chicken breast, potatoes, whole grains and fortified cereal.
VITAMIN C also helps the immune system by stimulating the formation of antibodies. Find it in citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons and tangerines, strawberries, melons, tomatoes, red bell pepper, broccoli and cauliflower.
VITAMIN D’s link to the immune system is not yet well understood, but recent studies indicate it has a protective effect against respiratory infections. Milk and other dairy products, orange juice and some breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin D. Those with dietary restrictions can find the vitamin in wild mushrooms, eggs, salmon, tuna, fortified tofu and plant-based milks, Hanna says. For most people, the best way to get enough vitamin D is to take a supplement.
VITAMIN E is an antioxidant that helps maintain the immune system. Find it in almonds, hazelnuts and peanuts, wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds and oil, safflower oil, corn oil and salmon steak.
IRON is needed for the development of immune cells. Good sources of this mineral include beef and chicken liver, clams and mussels, beef, poultry, ham, halibut, haddock, perch, salmon and tuna, cooked beans, tofu and enriched breakfast cereals.
ZINC is a mineral the body needs to activate T cells (also called lymphocytes), which are important in finding and destroying foreign substances in the body. Zinc can be consumed in oyster, crabs and lobster, beef, poultry, pork, beans, pumpkin seeds, nuts and fortified breakfast cereals.
WHAT IS THE IMMUNE SYSTEM?
Throughout the day, we’re exposed to germs and bacteria in various ways—for example, on doorknobs, through bug bites or via a cough or sneeze from an infected person. The immune system, a highly complex network of tissues, cells and organs, first blocks these invaders from getting into the body through skin and other tissues. If foreign agents do enter the body, the immune system works to get rid of them through a variety of tools, including:
• White blood cells (including B cells and T cells) that destroy the invaders
• The lymphatic system, a network of fine tubes that collects dead cells and germs from tissues
• Antibodies, which lock onto foreign substances and kill them, or flag them so that other cells can do the job of killing them
Studies have shown that, in addition to a healthy diet, people can keep their immune systems strong through regular physical activity, getting enough sleep (seven to eight hours a night), reducing stress and staying well-hydrated with water or other noncaloric liquids.
SIMPLE WAYS TO STAY ON TRACK
Elizabeth Hanna, R.D., clinical nutrition manager for Hackensack University Medical Center, recommends the following steps to support an overall healthy immune system.
• Eat a variety of whole foods throughout the day, with a focus on making half of your plate at each meal filled with an array of fruits and vegetables.
• Reduce the frequency with which you dine out or order in. Eating more often at home will ensure you consume less processed foods and gives you control over the ingredients you are using so you are able to choose nutrient-dense meals and snacks.
• Trade junk foods for fruits and veggies. Choose fruits and vegetables as snacks instead of highly processed foods like sugary and salty snacks, desserts and packaged mixes.
• Consume healthy anti-inflammatory fats such as Omega-3s from fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna and monounsaturated fats from oils like extra virgin olive oil.
• Avoid sweetened beverages and stick to flavorful alternatives such as home-brewed teas and waters flavored or infused with fruit.