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Foods that may help boost your immune system

Every day, your immune system helps your body fight off foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, fungi and toxins to keep you healthy. But during cold and flu season or other times when infection rates are high, your immune system could likely use a little extra nutritional love.

To be clear, food cannot replace medicine.

Food cannot cure disease, nor can it prevent you from contracting a disease. However, when you’re trying to fight infection, consuming a variety of nutrients can give your immune system a lift. Here are some dietitian-approved nutrition tips to help keep your immune system running smoothly.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a powerful antioxidant and vitamin that helps heal wounds, repair and maintain healthy bones, fight off free radicals in the body and make antibodies to fight off illness. Food sources of Vitamin C include:

  • Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Kiwi
  • Strawberries
  • Red and green bell peppers
  • Mangoes
  • Summer squash
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Papayas

Vitamin A

Vitamin A can help regulate the immune system, fight against free radicals and protect against infections by supporting the intestines, stomach, respiratory system and mouth. Food sources include brightly colored fruits and veggies like:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Mangoes
  • Red bell peppers
  • Apricots
  • Winter squash (butternut and acorn)
  • Tomatoes
  • Dark leafy greens (like spinach)
  • Eggs
  • Vitamin A fortified foods like milk and some cereals
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts

Vitamin D

As you may know, Vitamin D is very important for bone health, but it’s also very important to the immune system because it may help fight off bacteria and viruses. Vitamin D can be absorbed via sun exposure. Aim for small amounts of sun exposure daily to get Vitamin D, but make sure you wear sunscreen. If you live in a cloudier climate or it’s the winter season, food can help supplement.

Vitamin D is found in:

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Egg yolk
  • Some cheeses
  • Irradiated mushrooms
  • Fortified Vitamin D products which include most cow’s milk products, some cereals, orange juices, yogurts, cheeses and soy beverage brands. Make sure to read the label to double check!

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is another antioxidant that may support immunity through protection of free radicals and cell damage. Food sources include:

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  • Vegetable oils like olive, sunflower and canola
  • Whole grains
  • Seeds
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Wheat germ
  • Avocados
  • Olives

Zinc

Zinc supports the immune system through its healing properties. It is often recommended for growing kids, athletes in injury recovery and those who struggle with wound healing. Zinc is absorbed slightly better in animal form than in plant form.

  • Animal sources include lean beef, seafood, poultry and milk products.
  • Plant sources include whole grains, beans, seeds and nuts. You can increase zinc absorption in plant forms by buying whole grain, nut and seed products that are “sprouted,” soaking beans or leavening bread.

Protein

Protein is key for healing and recovery, therefore making it important for your overall immune health as well. Aim to eat a variety of animal and plant-based proteins and spread them out throughout the day. Healthy protein sources include:

  • Lean cuts of red and white meats
  • Seafood and shellfish
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Soy products (soybeans, edamame, tofu, tempeh and texturized vegetable protein)
  • Wheat gluten products like seitan
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Dairy and dairy alternatives
  • Whole grains

More immune-boosting tips

These vitamins can help, but don’t stop there! Other goodies that may help support a healthy immune system include Vitamin B12, Vitamin B6, Folate, Copper, Selenium, Iron and probiotics.

Eat a variety of foods and it will be easy to get all of these immune boosting vitamins and minerals. Fresh produce is great but if you are unable to get fresh or frozen produce, eating canned or dried foods will still get you the nutrients you need to boost immunity. Do the best you can with what you have! Look for low sodium and no sugar added products. If you can’t find them, wash before use.

If you decide to supplement, keep in mind the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements. Make sure to talk with your doctor before starting any type of supplement.

Remember: everything in moderation! Don’t feel guilty for craving snacks or sweets deemed “unhealthy.” Nachos, ramen and desserts can still be a part of a well-balanced lifestyle.

Make sure when you are searching for advice online that you look to government-based or research-based websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, World Health Organization and Eatright.org. Look to registered dietitians (RD/RDNs) like me for food and nutrition advice and doctors (MD and DO) for medical advice. There’s a lot of confusing, conflicting information out there, but you can trust us to help you make sense of it all.

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About the author

Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN
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Alessandra Stasnopolis, RDN, LDN, is a clinical dietitian and wellness coordinator in the Baylor Scott & White Health wellness department.

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Foods that may help boost your immune system