With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (and its emerging coronavirus variants) posing a threat to our wellness, it’s no surprise many people are interested in strengthening their immune systems. Our long-term attitude to health has changed, with millions of people taking more vitamins and supplements than ever before. At-risk people, who are more vulnerable to coronavirus risks, are especially concerned with maintaining a healthy lifestyle — and food is seen as a key tool for boosting their overall immunity. A study from the Nutrients journal found that the elderly and immunocompromised populations require good nutritional status to fight off acute viral infection and critical disease, as an optimized diet will support immune cell function and improve the body’s response against pathogens.
People who want to remain in good physical and mental health — despite limited mobility — should definitely focus on their nutrition, alongside sleep and exercise. Stress can lead to us adopting poor nutritional habits, like overeating or snacking on ultra-processed foods rich in sugars and fats.
In this article, we’ll discuss what an immune system-focused diet looks like, and what food products to eat for improved quality of life.
What is an Immunity-Boosting Diet?
The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells, and proteins that work together to fight harmful bacteria, viruses, or toxins that enter your body and cause infections or disease. Aside from vaccinations, there are few ways to support our innate immunity. We can strengthen our first-line of defense against threats through our diet.
There is a common misconception that certain miraculous superfoods and supplements can automatically prevent us from getting sick. However, there is no single magical food that can protect your immune system. Rather, you need to make healthy eating choices and consume a range of foods that contain the nutrients you need. Nutrients like iron, zinc, folate, selenium, copper, probiotics, and vitamins A, B, C, D, and E keep the body working well. A varied, balanced plate at every meal is what you need.
For at-risk individuals and senior citizens, you may need professional expertise in planning your immune-boosting diet. Fortunately, some insurance packages do offer fitness programs that allow older people to work on their nutrition. For example, KelseyCare Advantage plans support seniors through live classes, workshops, videos, and articles on how to begin a diet-and-health plan that is customized to their needs. In some of their packages, you can even avail of home-delivered meals that are specially prepared to manage chronic conditions and other health complications. Still, it’s best to be aware of what types of food you need to consume every day to improve your immune system’s performance.
Building a Diet for Your Immune System
While supplements can provide our bodies with the nutrients to make up for any nutritional deficiencies, they’re not meant to replace healthy eating. Instead, focus on building a healthy gut microbiome (the range of bacteria and other organisms in the intestine), which has been linked with strong immune system function, by consuming a wide variety of foods. This includes:
One of the most important nutrients our immune system needs is vitamin C, which is commonly found in fruits. Vitamin C is an antioxidant, which means it neutralizes harmful molecules called free radicals, which damage our cells. Vitamin C also stimulates the growth of white blood cells and antibodies, which is why it’s so effective in fighting colds, viruses, and other infections. As our body can’t produce vitamin C on its own, we need to pay careful attention to the food we eat. Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and kiwi provide big doses of vitamin C and folate. Melon-like fruits such as watermelon, cantaloupe, and papaya also provide vitamin A, C, and folate, while berries (blueberries, strawberries, and elderberries) contain vitamin C and antioxidants — with the bonus of being easy to eat.
With vegetables, the goal is to make your plate as colorful as possible. Leafy, green veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts are particularly nutritious. Not only do they contain iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E, and antioxidants, but they also help reduce inflammation. Allium vegetables like garlic, scallions, and onion likewise share their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Orange and red vegetables (sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, cantaloupes, and bell peppers) often contain beta-carotene, which can transform into vitamin A, plus vitamin C. And while they’re not technically vegetables, certain types of mushrooms like button and shitake also offer vitamin B6, vitamin D, selenium, zinc, and copper.
Whole grains are the healthiest choice for carbs. Unlike refined grains, which are processed to remove the bran and the germ from the grain, whole grains contain all grain components. This keeps them full of fiber, antioxidants, and nutrients like folate, magnesium, selenium, iron, and B vitamins. Aside from boosting the immune system, whole grains can even reduce inflammation. A Tufts University study on whole grains found that middle- to older-aged adults who ate more serving of whole grains have smaller increases in waist size, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels as they aged, compared to those that ate fewer servings, which led to improved cholesterol levels and a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes. Instead of eating breads, pastas, and other products made of refined grain, swap them for products made of whole wheat, oats, rye, barley, brown rice, and quinoa.
Both animal and plant-based proteins work to build cells and repair tissues, so they’re essential in maintaining our immune systems. Poultry (chicken or turkey), red meat (beef or lamb), eggs, oily fish (salmon, tuna, sardines), and shellfish (crab, clams, lobster, mussels, oysters) are chock-full of nutrients like vitamin B-6, vitamin D, zinc, and iron, so they’re quite healthy in appropriate portions. For plant-based proteins, you can have tofu, edamame, or pulses if you want to cut down on meat and save money. Pulses, such as beans, legumes, chickpeas, and lentils, contain plenty of fiber, magnesium, iron, and folate. Good fats from nuts and seeds can also provide your body with antioxidants, vitamin E, and selenium, so snack on almonds, sunflower seeds, and Brazil nuts to satisfy your junk food cravings.
A recent Cell Press microbiome-immunity study revealed that fermented food diets can increase microbiome diversity and decrease markers of inflammation. Yogurt, pickles, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kefir, and certain cheeses contain live cultures known as probiotics. When introduced to your body, these probiotics (or good bacteria) stimulate your immune system to fight off disease. Plus, probiotics in fermented foods can even aid digestion and help with upper respiratory infections.
Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices are anti-inflammatory and antioxidative ingredients that provide additional support to your immune system. These spices even let you minimize the salt in your recipes, without compromising on flavor. Ginger and turmeric offer a number of health benefits. And as we mentioned in our post on Indonesian Cinnamon, this aromatic spice provides antibacterial, anti-fungal, antioxidant, anti-thrombotic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor properties in your dishes.
For more insights into healthy eating, check out the other articles here on the Health Benefits Times website today.