A strong immune system helps to keep a person healthy. Can specific foods boost the immune system?
A healthy immune system is what makes the difference between getting sick, say, once a year, and coming down with colds and other illnesses on a regular basis.
Much of society’s renewed interest in immunity is a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what can you do to actively support your immune system?
“No single food is going to prevent you from getting sick, but focusing on an overall nutrient-rich dietary pattern and healthier lifestyle behaviors, like adequate sleep, hand-washing, physical activity, and stress management, can help keep your immune system working at its best,” says Michelle Cardel, PhD, MS, RD, director of global clinical research and nutrition at WW.
Which foods boost the immune system?
A healthful, balanced diet plays a vital role in staying well. The following foods may help to boost the immune system:
Protein is a must. High-protein foods like seafood, chicken, beans, unsalted nuts and seeds can be beneficial for your immune health, Dr. Cardel touts eggs as one of the best options, thanks to their “variety of bioactive compounds that can influence anti-inflammatory pathways in the body.”
Not a huge fan of eggs? No problem! Galloway says that other protein-rich foods, including ready-to-drink protein shakes, can also work to boost immunity. “I love adding a ready-to-drink protein shake into my morning coffee to add a boost of satiating protein and flavor,” she says. “Plus, when I find options that have [plenty of] vitamins and minerals including antioxidants vitamins C and E, which help support a healthy immune system as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, I know I’m making a smart (and delicious) addition to my morning routine.”
Garlic is a common home remedy for the prevention of colds and other illness.
Luckily for us, garlic is not only delicious but incredibly good for your immune system, too. “Allicin, an organosulfur compound found in crushed garlic, has antimicrobial properties,” Maeng says. “Allicin also helps with the absorption of zinc which [as mentioned] is crucial for immune function. Next time you cook with garlic, remember to add a little more for your immune system.”
3. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are rich in beta carotene Trusted Source, a type of antioxidant that gives the skin of the potatoes its orange color.
Beta carotene is a source of vitamin A. It helps to make skin healthy and may even provide some protection against skin damage Trusted Source from ultraviolet (UV) rays.
People use ginger in a variety of dishes and desserts, as well as in teas.
According to a review, ginger has anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties and is likely to offer health benefits. However, more research is necessary to confirm whether or not it can effectively prevent illness.
Beans are a good source of protein especially glutamine, Maeng says. “Black beans, lentils are all great sources of L-glutamine, an essential amino acid that fuels your body’s white blood cells,” she explains. “You can try vegetarian chili with beans, creamy Dal, or black bean burgers to increase your L-glutamine intake.”
6. Green tea
Green tea contains only a small amount of caffeine, so people can enjoy it as an alternative to black tea or coffee. Drinking it may also strengthen the immune system.
As with blueberries, green tea contains flavonoids, which may reduce Trusted Source the risk of a cold.
Oranges are an excellent source of vitamin C, which is the vitamin that many people turn to when they feel a cold developing.
While scientists are still not sure exactly how it helps, vitamin C may reduce Trusted Source the duration of common cold symptoms and improve the function of the human immune system.
8. Sunflower seeds
Sunflower seeds can make a tasty addition to salads or breakfast bowls. They are a rich source of vitamin E, an antioxidant.
Packed with both selenium and zinc, Maeng says that sunflower seeds are a fantastic food for your immune system. “You can add them to your warm oatmeal, salad, grain bowls, or even make nutty and cream dips with them,” she says. Or you can take the old-fashioned route and eat them on their own as a snack.
Maeng says that pineapple is another must-have immune-boosting food. In addition to being chock full of vitamin C, pineapple is a source of bromelain, which boosts the immune system by preventing cancer, blood clots, and other serious ailments. Plus, it has anti-inflammatory benefits as a whole.
Although some people prefer apples without their peels, Galloway says that when it comes to supporting your immune system, you want to gobble them down. “Apple skin contains quercetin, a phytochemical that can support immune health and reduce inflammation,” she says. “Apples also have pectin, which is a prebiotic and promotes gut health. As we learn more about our gut, we continue to find a direct correlation between a healthy gut and immunity.”
Add a little crunch to your salad and a major boost to your immunity with the simple addition of carrots in your diet. “Carrots are a rich source of vitamin A,” Dr. Cardel says. “Vitamin A is known as the ‘anti-inflammation vitamin’ because it keeps your skin and tissues throughout your body healthy and functioning, and research shows it plays a critical role in enhancing immune function.”
Mushrooms may be a potent weapon in warding off colds, flu, and other infections. Studies on fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, and extracts have shown that mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake, and reishi have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-tumor effects.
Make it kid-friendly: Slice up some shiitake mushrooms and add them to a stir fry or omelet, use sauteed mushrooms as taco or burrito filling, or stir them into some miso soup.
Berries are rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids, phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables that may work as antioxidants and prevent injury to cells.5
One cup of strawberries contains as much as 100 mg of Vitamin C, which is nearly as much as a cup of orange juice. Dark berries such as blueberries are especially high in bioflavonoids. For an optimal immune system boosting effect, eat a bowl of mixed berries, or vary which berries you choose from day to day, rather than eating just one type.
When choosing yogurt, go for the style you enjoy the most. It’s important to choose a variety that uses live and active cultures. If you opt for plain yogurt and add fruit, spices, and a little of your favorite sweetener, you will have a lower-sugar snack that’s also loaded with calcium.
Studies have shown that the live cultures in yogurt such as lactobacillus can protect the intestinal tract against gastrointestinal illnesses and increase resistance to immune-related diseases such as infection and even cancer.9
The beneficial live cultures in yogurt such as Lactobacillus acidophilus may help prevent colds and other infections or shorten their duration, although more research is needed.
Kid-friendly serving idea: Spoon some plain yogurt into a bowl with berries and drizzle honey over it for a potent immune system boosting snack. Add plain yogurt to a smoothie, use plain yogurt in place of sour cream, or make a yogurt parfait with fresh berries, granola, and a sprinkling of nuts on top.
Here’s some happy news for chocolate lovers everywhere: Some studies indicate that cocoa and extracts of cocoa might positively affect various aspects of the immune system as well as act as a powerful antioxidant. As long as you keep the sugar and fat to a minimum, unsweetened cocoa and cocoa powder may play a role in immune system health.
The studies on cocoa are often done on extracts, although they often extrapolate the amount of extract used to a correlating amount of cocoa. Recent studies have also looked at cocoa as a whole and even dark chocolate.
Studies have shown that regular consumption of cocoa/extracts may reduce heart disease risk, help raise good cholesterol, and possibly reverse blood vessel damage in people with diabetes.8
Make it kid-friendly: Add cocoa powder and mashed banana to oatmeal while it’s cooking, or make avocado-cocoa pudding. Try cocoa in savory dishes mixed with spices such as chili powder. Or, the classic: Have a mug of hot chocolate made with cocoa powder, milk, and a bit of sugar.