Eat to Boost Your Immunity
All our body’s systems require fuel to function. The immune system is no different. By eating foods rich in certain nutrients and healthful bacteria, we can give our built-in defenses the resources they need to create our own inner defense system against an influx of bacteria and other non-productive influences. Start shoring up your body by seeking out the following foods.
Vitamins and minerals
Optimal levels of these micronutrients are linked to greater immunity, according to scientific studies. Research has also suggested that supplementing with key vitamins and minerals may support our natural immune system.
Although a whole variety play a role in boosting our immune system, foods containing vitamins, D, E, and C and the minerals, zinc, copper, and selenium appear to be particularly impactful. Along with taking supplements, you can glean these boons to your immune system from your diet. Here are a few nutrient-rich foods, with the vitamins and minerals they supply:
Fortified milk, eggs, mushrooms, tuna, salmon: Vitamin D
Oranges, kiwi, red bell peppers, broccoli, spinach: Vitamin C
Sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach: Vitamin E
Shellfish, meat, poultry: zinc and selenium
Seeds and nuts, whole grains, shellfish, chocolate: copper
These compounds abundant in plants help activate our immune system to fight off any biological invaders that may negatively influence our health. Plus, they encourage the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Research suggests that curcumin (in turmeric), allicin (in garlic), and gingerol (in ginger) are especially powerful. Here’s why: these polyphenols are both antioxidants (meaning they fight the free radicals that damage cells) and antimicrobials (meaning they keep bad bacteria in check). Here are a few polyphenol-rich foods, with an immunity-boosting micronutrient they include
Red grapes: resveratrol
Dark chocolate: catechins, flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins, and procyanidins
Green tea: catechin (epigallocatechin-3-gallate)
Probiotics and Prebiotic Foods
A large proportion of the immune system resides in the gastrointestinal tract. Basically, cells in its lining secrete antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system to fight foreign bodies, like bacteria).
Probiotics (live microorganisms that benefit our health) stimulate the production of these beneficial bacteria to ward off harmful bacteria, according to research.1 Several studies highlight how the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria varieties are particularly beneficial to the immune system. As with vitamins and mineral-rich foods, research ties these organisms to a greater chance of health and wellness. So, taking in probiotics can help empower our antibodies to protect ourselves.
To get enough of these live microorganisms, pop a probiotic supplement or eat probiotic foods. You can also feast on foods rich in prebiotics (indigestible plant fibers that “feed” probiotic bacteria).
Yogurt or kefir with live active cultures
Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
Cooking to boost immunity
Most important, start with wholesome foods. Then prepare them in ways that retain or even amp up their nutrient content. Here are a few tips:
Source the freshest produce: Generally, the longer fruits and vegetables sit out after harvesting, the more nutrients they lose. To seek out goods picked as recently as possible, shop at a farmer’s market.
Consider combos: Certain nutrient-rich foods are more potent when paired. Here are some examples:
Turmeric and black pepper (if buying a curcumin supplement, make sure it also includes black pepper)
Plant-based iron (in spinach and lentils) with Vitamin C (in citrus)
Vitamin D (in salmon, tuna, egg yolks, and fortified milks) with calcium (in broccoli, collard greens, dried figs, and oranges)
Incomplete proteins (proteins that do not include the full nine types of amino acids you need, like rice with black beans, hummus or peanut butter with whole-wheat pita, or quinoa and corn)
Cook to keep nutrients: Try to avoid boiling veggies in water, since their nutrients can leach into the cooking water. Instead, steam or roast. Or simmer vegetables in liquid that you will incorporate into a dish, as with soups or stews.
Cook fat-soluble vitamins in fat: Vitamins D, E, A, and K are fat-soluble, meaning they dissolve in fats. So, cook veggies with those micronutrients in oil or butter and include the fat as part of the finished dish. Think spinach sauteed in olive oil or mushroom soup, built on a base of onions, garlic, and mushrooms cooked in avocado oil.
Make triple (or even quadruple) threats, or dishes that combine vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, probiotics, and prebiotics. Here are a few ideas:
Indian dal (lentils): Saute onion, carrot, garlic, and ginger in avocado oil. Add lentils, tomato paste, broth, and curry powder (which includes turmeric), and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer until the lentils are cooked through. Serve topped with yogurt.
Spinach salad: Toss fresh spinach with bell peppers, chopped eggs, and tomatoes. Toss with garlicy lemon vinaigrette, then top with toasted walnuts.
Fruity oatmeal: Simmer oats with chopped bananas, flaxseed, and Vitamin D-fortified milk. Top with fresh berries, a dollop of yogurt with live active cultures, and toasted pecans.
Muesli: Stir together rolled oats, yogurt, milk, flaxseed, golden raisins, diced apple, and chopped grapes; top with toasted nuts
Shrimp and broccoli stir-fry with garlic, ginger, and cashews, served with kimchi
Quinoa, corn, spinach, tomato, and avocado salad
Hot ginger-turmeric tea with lemon, black pepper, and honey
Bowl with black beans, brown rice, fajita vegetables (bell peppers, onions, and garlic sauteed in olive oil) topped with yogurt and guacamole
Fruit salad with kiwi, orange, grapes, and berries sprinkled with toasted nuts and seeds
1 Hamid R. Haghighi, Jianhua Gong, Carlton L. Gyles, M. Anthony Hayes, Huaijun Zhou, Babak Sanei, James R. Chambers, and Shayan Sharif (2006 Sep)
Calder, Philip C., Nature (2021)
Burgess, L., Medical News Today (July 10, 2018)
NIH Fact Sheet for Professionals (2021 Dec)
NIH Fact Sheet for Professionals (2021 Mar)
Fields, H., Johns Hopkins Medicine (2015 Nov)
Healthwise Staff, Myhealth.Alberta.ca (June 17, 2021)
WebMD (July 30, 2020)
Wioletta Żukiewicz-Sobczak, Paula Wróblewska, Piotr Adamczuk, and Wojciech Silny (2014 Apr)
Johansen, E., Biomedcentral.com (Aug 29, 2014)
Collins, J., WebMD (Sept 14, 2020)
Palsdottir, H., MS, Healthline (Jan 6, 2022)
M. Mrityunjaya, V. Pavithra, R. Neelam, P. Janhavi1, P. M. Halami and P. V. Ravindra (2020 Oct)
Gunnars, K., BSc, Healthline (Apr 6, 2020)
Nafiseh Shokri Mashhadi, Reza Ghiasvand, Gholamreza Askari, Mitra Hariri, Leila Darvishi, and Mohammad Reza Mofid, (2013 Apr)
Leech, J., MS, Healthline (Mar 19, 2021)
Ching-Chiung Wang, Lih-Geeng Chen, Lain-Tze Lee, Ling-Ling Yang (2003 Nov-Dec)
Pratt, D., Queens University, Science Daily (Jan 31, 2009)
Morgan R. Jennings and Robin J. Parks (2020 Oct)
S Ankri, D Mirelman (1999 Feb)
Arshad H Rahmani, Fahad M Al shabrmi, and Salah M Aly (2014 Jul)
Miri Park, Jungdon Bae, Dae-Sil Lee (2008 Nov)
Sonish Azam, Naghma Hadi, Nizam Uddin Khan, Sheikh Mumtaz Hadi (2003 Sep)
Hock Eng Khoo, Azrina Azlan, Sou Teng Tang, and See Meng Lim (2017 Aug)
Bahare Salehi, Abhay Prakash Mishra, Manisha Nigam, Bilge Sener, Mehtap Kilic, Mehdi Sharifi-Rad, Patrick Valere Tsouh Fokou, Natália Martins, and Javad Sharifi-Rad (2018 Sep)
Mary Adjepong, Pius Agbenorku, Patricia Brown, and Ibok Oduro (2016 Aug)
Abbe Maleyki Mhd Jalil and Amin Ismail (2008 Sep)
Gerald Rimbach, Mona Melchin, Jennifer Moehring, and Anika E. Wagner (2009 Nov)
Muhammad Imran Qadir, Syeda Tahira Qousain Naqvi, Syed Aun Muhammad (2016)
WebMD Editorial Contributors, WebMD (Oct 26, 2020)
İshak ÖzelTekin, FrancescoMarotta (2018 Sep)
Alina Petre, MS, RD (NL), Healthline (Jul 8, 2019)
Sujuan Ding, Hongmei Jiang, Jun Fang (2018 Apr)
Hira Shakoor, Jack Feehan, Ayesha S. Al Dhaheri, Habiba I. Ali, Carine Platat, Leila Cheikh Ismail, Vasso Apostolopoulos, and Lily Stojanovskaa (2020 Aug)
S S Percival (1998 May)
NIH Fact Sheet for Professionals (2021 Mar)
Kubala, J., MS, RD, Healthline (May 5, 2021)
Danahy, A., MS RDN, Livestrong (Aug 25, 2019)
Gorin, A., RDN, NBC News (Jul 9, 2018)