Tips for supporting your immune system through nutrition

By Rebecca Janda, registered dietitian at CHOC Children’s

While practicing good hand hygiene and following guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are the best ways to prevent the spread of infectious disease, nutrition plays an important role in optimizing immune health. Here are a few ways you can support your immune system through nutrition

Maintain sufficient protein and calorie intake

Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of immune cells and are essential to their function. Amino acids are also required for cellular repair and recovery, which makes them extra important during active infections. Try to include a source of protein in each meal. Choose whole food sources such as eggs, beans, lean meats, poultry, yogurt, nuts and seeds that provide added vitamins and minerals in addition to their protein content.

Immune cells require fuel, or calories, to function optimally. Maintaining adequate calorie intake is crucial to keeping cells functioning at their best. Large calorie deficits can weaken the immune system. Making healthy swaps that naturally reduce calories by a small amount, such as choosing a piece of fruit instead a bag of chips, can have added nutritional benefits, but large calorie reductions should be avoided.

Incorporate 1-2 servings per meal of fruits and vegetables, preferably in whole food form

  • Vitamin C — In just about every fruit and vegetable you can find at least a small amount of vitamin C. This nutrient acts as a very important antioxidant and stimulates the production of certain immune cells. While citrus fruits are known to be good sources, it may surprise you that strawberries, red bell peppers and kiwis contain more vitamin C per serving than citrus! The vitamin C content of food is reduced dramatically with time, processing and exposure to oxygen – meaning a fresh whole orange is a much better source of vitamin C than a glass of orange juice.
  • Vitamin A (Beta-Carotene) — Fruits and vegetables are also very good sources of vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene. Vitamin A plays a critical role in enhancing immune function by stimulating and regulating immune cells. Orange sweet potatoes contain the largest amount of beta-carotene per serving, but pumpkin, carrots, cantaloupe and many other orange and even green fruits and veggies are also great sources of this immune-boosting vitamin.
  • Other nutrients — Lycopene found in guavas and tomatoes help increase immune activities. Anthocyanins found in berries, red cabbage, and pomegranates have immune regulating properties.

Add more seafood to your menu

Zinc is a mineral that has anti-viral properties and is essential to wound healing. The best source of zinc is in seafood, especially oysters. Zinc is also found to a lesser extent in lean meats, poultry, beans, whole grains, dairy products and enriched cereals if seafood is not for you. Try to incorporate a serving of seafood several times per week, or daily if you are getting your zinc from non-seafood sources.

Always try to obtain nutrients from their food sources rather than supplements. Whole foods are safer and contain added benefits in addition to their nutritional properties.

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