Disclaimer: The following is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should refer to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), or other credentialed public health authorities for up-to-date information for proper measures to reduce your risk of exposure to COVID-19.
The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has made us more aware than ever that it is extremely important to practice healthy behaviors such as frequent hand washing and not touching our faces. It also has demonstrated that keeping our bodies healthy and our immune systems prepared is a key factor in reducing our risk of infection.
The easiest way to do that? Choosing the right foods and incorporating them into everyday meals in order to optimize our immunity.
Many nutrients, including protein, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants play a role in creating a strong immune system. Protein plays a large role by increasing the number of immune cells in the body, including lymphocytes, phagocytes, cytokines, and complement proteins.
Protein also serves as the primary building block for the body’s cells, tissues, and organs and is essential for tissue repair. Vitamins C, D, E and A, along with zinc, selenium, and probiotics are some of the most important nutrients to consume. They act in different ways in the body to boost different aspects of the immune system such as keeping our skin barrier healthy, increasing our antioxidant capacity, stimulating activity of white blood cells, and decreasing inflammation.
Other nutrients that may help us prevent getting sick, or helping to speed up our recovery if we do happen to get sick are garlic, which has antiviral activity, curcumin (a component of turmeric), ginger, and green tea, all of which also helps to decrease inflammation.
However, knowing what nutrients to eat and finding ways to get them into your diet on a daily basis can be challenging, especially for busy individuals or during the winter season when you may feel a little more tired and depleted than usual. Here are some tips for how to create a healthy meal plan that has immune-boosting benefits along with a sample menu to help you get started.
6 Tips to Upgrade Your Meals
Tip 1: Make your meals plant-focused
Plants are naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Building most of your meals around produce is an easy way to ensure that you are supporting your body’s immune system. Aim to consume at least 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables daily will not only meet the USDA’s recommendations but will also help your body maintain a strong immune response if you happen to be exposed to a virus.
Tip 2: Get Adequate Amounts of Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a key role in maintaining a healthy immune system and it has been shown to help fight acute respiratory infections. Getting enough vitamin D, either through exposure to sunlight, which can also help boost your mood during these colder months, but also from food sources such as meat, dairy, eggs, and fatty fish.
Tip 3: Cut Out Sugar
Refined sugar depresses the immune system by decreasing the ability of the white blood cells to fight infection. Over-consuming refined foods that are high in added sugar may also contribute to fatigue which could further decrease our ability to fight off infection. It is important to note that these findings are linked to refined or added sugars and doesn’t apply to sugars found in fruits or starchy vegetables.
Tip 4: Incorporate Flavonoid-Containing Foods
Flavonoids, which include approximately 6000 phenolic compounds, are phytonutrients (plant chemicals) found in almost all fruits and vegetables that have antioxidant properties. These phytonutrient compounds play an essential role in the immune defense system, especially in response to microbes that affect the respiratory tract. Research has shown that individuals with diets rich in flavonoids were less likely to get an upper respiratory tract infection or the common cold, than those who did not.
Tip 5: Feed Your Microbiome
Our microbiota are a key factor in the development of our immune system. Throughout our lifetime, there is constant communication between the two systems which is essential for healthy interaction between the microbiota and the immune system. Eating foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics help keep your gut healthy which is essential in keeping our system running optimally. Try to incorporate fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, and kimchi since they contain plenty of healthy probiotic bacteria that are great for your microbiome. Additionally, adding foods that are rich in prebiotic fibers such as inulin and beta-glucan, helps to maintain healthy gut flora.
Tip 6: Stay Hydrated
Most of us do not drink enough water throughout the day. Maintaining adequate hydration levels helps our circulation, production of immune system components, and making sure our body can filter waste products appropriately. Aiming to get at least the recommended 8 glasses per day (64 total ounces) is a good way to ensure that your system is functioning at optimal levels.
Sample Healthy Immune-Boosting Menu
Breakfast: 8 oz. Black Coffee with Raspberry Walnut Oatmeal with Wheat Germ (contains tree nuts and may contain gluten)
Loaded with heart-healthy beta-glucan, fiber, flavonoids, vitamin C, vitamin E, this meal not only helps to fill you up and power you throughout the day, but also has a hefty dose of immune-boosting nutrients.
16 oz. of water
Lunch: 1 Cup Plain Soy Milk with Chicken Noodle Soup (contains egg, may contain gluten)
Soy milk contains protein and phytonutrients which help to enhance our immune system. Chicken noodle soup also contains protein as well as gelatin which provides plenty of amino acids for building healthy tissue, enhancing immune cells, and aiding in recovery. Additionally, chicken noodle soup has vitamin A, vitamin K, zinc, and selenium, all of which contribute to our ability to fight off infections. The added benefits of vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 help our bodies make both lymphocytes (white blood cells) and red blood cells in addition to being part of a healthy balanced diet.
16 oz. of water
Snack: Baby Carrots and White Bean Dip, 8 oz Water
Vitamin A helps protect against infections by keeping skin and membranes of the body healthy as well as helps to regulate the immune system. The pro-form of vitamin A is most abundant in animal sources, although many plants of the precursor of vitamin A, beta carotene, which can be converted into the pro-form. These foods include yams, sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, fish, eggs, dairy, or fortified foods such as milk.
16 oz. of water
Dinner: Grilled Salmon with Sautéed Mushrooms, Roasted Broccoli, and Baked Sweet Potatoes with 1 Glass (5 oz) Red Wine.
Salmon is a fantastic source of omega-3 fatty acids that not only function to keep our cell membranes healthy and intact but also to help regulate the expression of white blood cells as well as control inflammation. Mushrooms benefit our immunity by providing vitamin D (if exposed to sunlight), vitamin B6, zinc, and selenium while the rest of this meal provides vitamin C, vitamin A, and phytonutrients. Even an occasional glass of red wine can be part of an immune-boosting meal as it contains the plant polyphenol resveratrol which can help with inflammation caused by the immune response.
16 oz. of water
Desert: Greek Yogurt with Mango, Raspberries
Greek yogurt is a great way to add probiotics to your diet as well as other essential nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Adding flavor with chunks of mangos and raspberries adds additional fiber and antioxidants which work to support the digestive tract and microbiome as well as support our ability to fight off disease.
Yours in health,
Sherry Zhang, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO
Now that you've learned a bit about how nutrition can impact your immune system, you can do a couple of different things:
1. Read the next installment of our Immunity Series: Easy Habits for Immune Health to continue learning.
2. Discover the best foods for your genes and start Eating For Your Genes through our Nutrition DNA Test