Every year, as soon as the leaves start falling, we start worrying about falling under the weather. The thing is, the weather itself doesn’t make us sick. “Germs are the actual cause of illness,” explains Jessica Tosto, M.S., R.D., Pace University College of Health Professions’ nutrition and dietetics coordinator. “We just tend to stay inside more in the colder months, which keeps germs contained and more likely to spread.”
Of course, washing your hands frequently is key to staying germ-free. But you can also support your immune system by consuming the right nutrients. Here, dietitians share the foods they fill their plates with all winter long.
Garlic has been used for centuries to help people fight viruses and bacteria.
“When crushed, sliced, or chewed, garlic releases the compound allicin, which is thought to have medicinal properties,” says dietitian Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Research has even shown that allicin can boost our white blood cell response, which helps us fight germs, she adds.
Harris-Pincus’ favorite way to enjoy garlic: in hummus. For an added bonus of immune-boosting antioxidants and phytochemicals, dunk some colorful veggies in your dip.
Used since ancient times for a myriad of health ailments, people across the globe continue to celebrate turmeric for its immune-boosting benefits.
“Systemic inflammation causes over-activation of the immune system, meaning we are both more susceptible to catching something, and that our symptoms may last longer,” explains certified holistic nutritionist Jennifer Hanway.
“Turmeric (and its cousin ginger) both contain immune-supporting compounds—and are easy and delicious to add to winter foods,” she says.
Try adding freshly-grated or powdered turmeric to juices, smoothies, soups, stews, curries, and chilis to reap its benefits.
“About 70 percent of the cells that maintain your immune function live in your GI tract, so maintaining a healthy gut microbiome is key to maintaining a healthy immune system and helping to fight off germs,” says Tosto.
Yogurt is an excellent source of the good-gut bacteria we know as probiotics, which are extremely important for a healthy gut microbiome and strong immune system.
Pro tip: Make sure your favorite yogurt says “contains live cultures” on the label.
Kombucha is still having a serious moment—and not just because it’s so refreshing. The fermented, ever-so-slightly alcoholic, tea-based drink also happens to be a great source of probiotics.
“Research suggests that probiotic-containing beverages, such as kombucha, may have a positive effect on the immune system, gut microflora, vitamin synthesis and absorption, bowel health, and digestion,” says dietitian Becky Kerkenbush, M.S., R.D., a representative for the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Shoot for one serving of kombucha—or another fermented food or drink—per day throughout cold and flu season, recommends Hanway.
Known for its bittersweet flavor, grapefruit is loaded with nutrients and antioxidants that help boost the immune system.
A specific type of antioxidant called polyphenols are particularly powerful. “An added benefit is the impact dietary polyphenols have on our gut microbiota,” says Stella Metsovas, C.C.N., clinical nutritionist and author of Wild Mediterranean. “Studies have shown that polyphenols have prebiotic properties and can boost strains of healthy bacteria in the gut.”
Make grapefruit a regular staple with breakfast or at snack time, Metsovas recommends. While the fleshy inside is without doubt the most delicious part of the citrus fruit, don’t neglect its white inner skin (or pith), which is chock full of fiber and antioxidants.
6. Bone Broth
In addition to nourishing your microbiome with fermented foods, Hanway recommends supporting your digestive system with bone broth, which contains specific amino acids that support healthy tissues throughout your GI tract.
“Use bone broth as a soup base or warm drink, three to four times a week,” she says.
7. Vitamin C + Zinc-Rich Foods
If there’s one food most of us associate with staying healthy through cold and flu season, it’s the classic orange, which is loaded with immune-protecting vitamin C. “While oranges do contain a significant amount of vitamin C, other options, such as kale, peppers, and broccoli, actually contain more,” says Hanway. Lemons are a good source, too.
Since studies show that vitamin C works better when combined with the mineral zinc, Hanway recommends pairing vitamin C-rich foods with zinc-rich foods such as seafood, eggs, nuts and seeds to really show your immune system love.
Try topping steamed broccoli or kale with a dressing made of tahini (basically sesame seed butter), olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper to reap the C and zinc benefits.