Having a well-balanced plate containing grains, lean-proteins, fruits and vegetables has a direct impact on overall immune health. In addition, there are specific nutrients that play an important role in supporting the immune system, our body’s main defense against foreign enemies that cause sickness.
The immune system can only use carbohydrates to fuel its functions. Therefore, reducing carbohydrates or eating insufficient carbohydrates, as often seen in low carbohydrate fad diets and fasting, can alter the immune system response and increase stress hormones such as cortisol. The immune system needs fuel to run on, just as a car needs gas to operate.
Carbohydrates are the main source of fiber which is important for lowering blood lipids and blood glucose. Fiber from carbohydrate sources also support the gut’s microbiome, a collection of beneficial bacteria that live in the intestinal tract. These bacteria, known as probiotics, eat the fiber (prebiotics) that are sourced from carbohydrate foods like whole grains for example. It is important to feed the good bacteria. The good bacteria provide a protective barrier for the gut and crowd out the pathogenic bacteria. Altogether, having a healthy immune system is dependent on a well-balanced diet, so be sure to include lean protein sources for building immune cells and antibodies.
What to eat: Whole grains, fruit, beans, legumes, and potatoes.
The gut is one of the body’s first line of defense. In fact, the gut houses 70% of the body’s immune system making gut health a critical component of immune health. Not only is a diet high in fiber necessary to flourish healthful gut bacteria, consuming probiotics strengthens the largest portion of your immune system. A healthy micro biome (community of bacteria in the intestine) also reduces inflammation in the gut and improves digestion and absorption of nutrients. Having 1 cup of yogurt daily, or another probiotic source, will help to restore and nourish the gut’s beneficial bacteria, supporting the immune system.
What to eat: Yogurt, kefir, kimchi and Kombucha
- Vitamin C
This vitamin is likely the most well-known nutrient to support the immune system. While it will not prevent sickness as most believe it does, it can help to shorten the duration. Vitamin C is found in high concentration in white blood cells that fight infection. As the need for vitamin C increases when a person becomes ill, increase consumption of orange juice or citrus fruits to help meet this increased demand.
What to eat: Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, kiwi), bell peppers, dark green vegetables
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D can be synthesized by the sun hitting our skin. However, in the winter months it may be difficult to get enough vitamin D through sun exposure. Being more thoughtful about getting in vitamin D food sources, such as egg yolks and fish, can be helpful for immune health. Consuming the recommended 2-3 servings of cold-water fish per week will not only provide some vitamin D, but potent anti-inflammatory omega-3s as well. Mushrooms are a plant-based vitamin D option. Since vitamin D is better absorbed with a meal that has fat, since it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, add mushrooms to omelets, soups, blend into meatballs, or sauté with olive oil to provide some fat for absorption.
What to eat: Salmon (canned or fresh), Portobello mushrooms, tuna and milk
Zinc is critical for immune health. Zinc helps our cells grow and function. Zinc is a little easier to get as it is abundant in a lot of food sources but zinc is not stored in the body so you must get it every day.
What to eat: Protein containing foods such as meat, beans, nuts, seafood and whole grains
Dietitian Deanna Tip: Nutrition for immune health does not guarantee we won’t get sick, but it can help to decrease the frequency, severity and duration of sickness.
Food is not the only factor that can influence immune health. Lifestyle factors such as poor sleep, excess alcohol, chronic diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes, and even psychological stress all weaken the immune system. Ensuring nutrient diversity by building half your plate with colorful fruits and vegetables and choosing to fill the two remaining quarters with lean proteins and whole grains can help to reduce chronic disease, elevate your mood and strengthen your immune system so you can be a happier and healthier self this holiday season.