“You are what you eat” isn’t just catchy; it’s true. Indeed, a large body of research links what we eat with our health. From our cardiovascular to our mood, the food we consume impacts us in countless ways—including our immunity.
“Nutrition is an important way to build your resilience and your immune health,” says dietitian Amy Archer, R.D.N., C.L.T., C.H.W.C. “Eating a healthy, nutrient-dense diet can be the first line of defense against illness and disease.”
That said, there’s a good chance your first meal of the day isn’t doing your immunity any favors. Here’s what to know about how the typical American breakfast undermines immune health, and how to make your morning meal better for your inner defenses.
The Nutrition-Immunity Connection
So, how exactly does your diet impact your immune health? Well, in all sorts of ways.
“Our immune system is based on the presence of many micronutrients we get from food,” says Dr. Lina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D. “For instance, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, and iron are known to promote the function of the immune system,” she says.
Take vitamin D, for instance. Our white blood cells, which defend the body from disease, have vitamin D receptors, Velikova explains. As a result, “Low levels of vitamin D are connected with frequent infections,” she says.
Bottom line: If you don’t get a sufficient amount of these nutrients, your immune health might pay the price.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
Not surprisingly, eating too much of the wrong things can also negatively impact our immunity: “Inflammation, which is ongoing if we eat too much processed food, impairs our immune system,” Velikova says.
Take the sugar, for example: “Sugar consumption directly affects our body’s ability to fight off viruses and infections, since white blood cells are affected by sugar intake,” explains Velikova. “This effect lasts for a few hours after the intake. In fact, a study by Loma Linda University in which participants consumed different kinds of sugar found that the effectiveness of white blood cells decreased by around 50 percent after two hours,” she explains.
Common breakfast foods high in refined sugars, such as pancakes and syrup, sugary juices, and sweet pastries, all do more harm than good when over-consumed, she says.
In addition to reducing the body’s ability to control infection and bumping up inflammation, diets high in these foods also increase risk for auto-inflammatory diseases and allergies, says Dr. Ava Williams, M.D., a preventative care-focused primary care doctor at Doctor Spring.
The Typical American Breakfast And Immune Health
The standard American diet is typically full of refined carbs and sugars, which work to weaken immune health in the long run, Williams says. (Think soda, fast food, white pasta, and even condiments like ketchup and salad dressing.)
And the meal that often concentrates the most on these foods? You guessed it: Many an American breakfast involves heavily-processed grains and sugar in the form of doughnuts, muffins, processed cereals, sweetened yogurts, syrup, and the like.
Basically, many of us start the day by undermining our immunity without even realizing it.
How To Make Your Breakfast More Immune Health-Friendly
To keep your immune health in check, your morning meal should be loaded with nutrients and as low in undesirable highly-processed carbs and sugars as possible.
Use these five expert-backed tips to create a breakfast your body will thank you for.
1. Strive to include fruit and veggies every day
Amy Gorin, M.S., R.D.N., a plant-based dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats, is a big advocate for always including fresh produce at breakfast. This ensures you load up on immunity-supporting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Archer agrees and recommends tossing colorful veggies like broccoli, mushrooms, carrots, cauliflower, spinach, or kale into whatever you’re having for breakfast. Variety is key for increasing vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, and phytonutrient intake, she says.
Her go-to? A veggie-packed egg or tofu scramble with gut- and immunity-healthy sauerkraut or kimchi and a side of berries. If you’re short on time, try an immune-boosting smoothie with leafy greens like kale or spinach, or eat a handful of baby carrots with your overnight oats.
2. Go Easy On The Breads
“If you’re eating just a plate of carbs, you’re not getting all the health-helping vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that come from other foods,” Gorin says. “It’s as simple as that!” In order to eat the rainbow, she recommends limiting white breads, bagels, and the like. For something with a similarly comforting vibe, opt for oatmeal made with steel-cut or rolled oats, which contains filling fiber, Velikova suggests. Add blueberries or another fruit and some cinnamon or turmeric for a flavor and nutrient boost.
3. Stay off the sugar train
As you now know, your body really doesn’t like it when you load up on sugar and refined carbs.
The bottom line: In addition to minimizing processed grain products, avoid added sugars at breakfast time whenever possible. And we’re not just talking about doughnuts and pastries. Go easy on the sugary juices, syrups, coffee creamers, and other morning meal accessories.
4. Nix the processed meats
Processed meats are suspect for a number of reasons—and their immune implications are no exception. “Processed meats can contain harmful chemicals (such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon) that form during the manufacturing process and are high in salts, nitrates, and additives that lead to oxidative stress, which reduces the ability of our immune system to fight off infections,” says Velikova.
Meat products to veto at the breakfast table and beyond include sausages, bacon, salami, and store-bought pâtés.
5. Set yourself up for success with quality sleep
Beyond what you eat, your sleep hygiene also plays a role in your overall health and even how your immune system functions.
When you wake up exhausted in the morning, you just know you’re reaching for that white toast with butter or bagel with cream cheese. “A good way to set yourself up for a healthy day is to get a solid night’s sleep,” says Archer. “When sleep is poor, we often see food cravings are increased for unhealthy foods”
To support the rest you need to make sound decisions come breakfast time, increase your intake of sleep-promoting magnesium in the evening (and check out these six foods that’ll put you to sleep). “Magnesium food sources include beans, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds,” says Archer. Otherwise, consider a magnesium supplement.