Ask the Expert: Which Foods Support Immunity?

Ask the Expert: Which Foods Support Immunity?

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Learn how to use foods to support your immune health and fight infection. 

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OCT. 09, 2020   3 MIN. READ

In this series, our experts answer nutrition questions to help you nourish your best life at every age. To submit a question for consideration*, email us.

Question: This time of year, it seems that everyone around me is sick! What can I do to keep healthy? Will loading up on vitamin C tablets help?

Answer: In a typical year, more than 35 million Americans will come down with the flu. Combined with colds, other viruses and COVID-19, this fall could shape up to be a serious health challenge, so this is a great question.

You are on the right track — your vitamin and mineral levels play an important role in keeping the immune system strong so that it can fight off foreign invaders, including cold and flu viruses.  Good nutrition plays a vital role by providing key nutrients for immune health support.

That’s why it’s essential right now to adopt a two-part wellness strategy that can help serve as a strong line of defense for you and your family:

1) Practice CDC-recommended illness prevention safeguards, such as safe social distancing, hand washing, mask usage and early flu vaccination.

2) Stay healthy this season by adopting an immune-friendly diet.

When it comes to nutrition, it's always best to take a "food first" approach and focus on foods that support the immune system. Whole foods not only contain the vitamins and minerals that we need, they contain those nutrients in natural, highly bioavailable forms — meaning they can be used more easily by the body.

Whole foods also contain them in the right amounts. After all, with vitamins (including vitamin C), more is not always better. Each day, your body can only take in and use certain amounts of vitamins and minerals. Take in more than you need with "mega-dose" tablets advertised to increase immunity, and you can end up passing a lot of it out through your urine! What's more, excess levels of other vitamins, called "fat-soluble" vitamins, aren't excreted in your urine and can build up in the body. So, over time, taking extra-high doses could become problematic. That's certainly not what you're going for!

Immunity Supporting Foods

OK, so if you're looking to add foods that support the immune system to your diet, which ones do you need? Well, the most important vitamins and minerals for boosting your immunity — and keeping that pesky cold at bay — include vitamins A, C and E, as well as zinc.

  • Vitamins A and C are both found in high amounts in fruits and vegetables. They are important because they help regulate the immune system and protect the body by keeping skin and tissue healthy to block entry of bacteria and other germs. Red bell peppers, for instance, give you a two-in-one punch of both A and C. Sweet potatoes, carrots, and spinach are also rich in A, while citrus fruits and tomatoes are a great source of vitamin C.
  • Vitamin E protects cell membranes from damage. Turn to nuts and seeds. Sunflower seeds and oil, almonds, hazelnuts and peanut butter are all great sources. Just remember, with these immune system booster foods, a little bit goes a long way! Nuts and seeds are also rich in zinc, along with oysters, poultry, seafood, milk and beans.
  • A healthy gut is also important in helping fight off infections. Choose prebiotic and probiotic foods that support a healthy gut flora — such as fruits, vegetables, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi — just to name a few.

So this cold and flu season, follow a balanced diet and fill each plate with produce, lean meats, dairy and healthy fats. That's how to support immune system health most effectively. Nature provides!

The expert: Abby Sauer, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian specializing in adult nutrition and wellness at Abbott.

*Note: This column is for general educational and informational purposes only. The information and the opinions of the author expressed do not constitute medical advice. Speak to your medical professional if you need personal health advice. Submit your nutrition question for consideration using the subject line "Ask the Expert." We will review submissions for future columns, but please note that not every question will be answered.

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