The uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic has many of us wondering what we can do to support our immune systems. Though a variety of natural supplements (looking at you, elderberry) can do our immune health good, one of the simplest ways to boost our immunity is often overlooked.
The food we put on our plates has a powerful impact on our health—and our internal defense mechanisms are no exception. In fact, eating enough of the right nutrients by loading up on certain whole foods goes a long way for our immune system, according to dietitian Jonathan Valdez, R.D.N., owner of Genki Nutrition and a spokesperson for the New York State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Of course, eating all the vegetables doesn’t excuse you from practicing social distancing and other protective measures, but it certainly makes a difference. Here, Valdez and other nutritionists break down seven immune-boosting foods that are particularly powerful.
1. Bell Peppers
You already know vitamin C is huge for immune health—but OJ isn’t the only way to up your intake.
“Vitamin C helps neutralize free radicals that weaken the immune system, and is involved in many other immune system processes,” says clinical nutritionists Lisa Richards, C.N.C., creator of The Candida Diet.
Luckily for anyone who isn’t a big citrus fan, “bell peppers, strawberries, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe are very rich in vitamin C as well,” says Richards. While an orange provides 51 milligrams vitamin C, a red bell pepper offers a whopping 300 milligrams.
Since heat can destroy vitamin C, Richards recommends eating raw, sliced peppers as a snack. Or, chop peppers and toss them into a salad with other vitamin C-rich veggies.
Vitamin D may be best-known for its bone and mood benefits, but it’s also crucial for a strong immune system. “Low levels of vitamin D make individuals more prone to respiratory illnesses, while adequate vitamin D levels enhance the function of immune cells,”explains dietitian Amy Shapiro M.S., R.D., C.D.N., nutritionist for Daily Harvest.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
Since most people spend far too much time indoors to meet their daily vitamin D needs, Shapiro recommends prioritizing foods that contain vitamin D. Though the sunshine vitamin is admittedly tough to get from food, you have a few options.
By far the best food source of vitamin D out there: salmon. A three-ounce serving contains an impressive 570 IU of vitamin D, Shapiro says. Eggs also contain some vitamin D, but provide a much less impressive 44 IU a pop. (Mushrooms and fortified milks and cereals may also provide small amounts of the nutrient.)
3. Anything Fermented
If you needed another reason to eat for gut health right now, one 2012 Gut Microbes study shows that your gut microbiome has a profound effect on your immune system. “When your gut microbiome is out of whack, the immune system does not work as efficiently or effectively as it could, which makes you more susceptible to illness,” Richards explains.
That’s where fermented foods, which are rich in gut-loving probiotics come in. (Yep, research like this 2013 Therapeutic Advances in Gastroenterology study suggests that probiotics’ gut benefits carry over to the immune system.)
To reap their benefits, Richards recommends eating two servings of probiotic-rich foods per day. Some of the best sources include kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt.
Berries are known for their antioxidant content and “increasing consumption of any antioxidant-rich foods can help the body fight off illnesses,” says Richards. (These powerful compounds work to destroy free radicals that can damage immune cells.)
Though all sorts of berries are considered immune-boosting foods, blueberries have some the highest antioxidant content among fruits and vegetables. “Regular consumption floods your body with the antioxidants it needs,” Richards says.
The best part? The blueberries don’t even have to be fresh. Recent research out of South Dakota State University suggests that frozen blueberries actually deliver more immune-boosting antioxidants, since they’re preserved at their peak.
Try tossing blueberries in a blender with Greek yogurt and banana for a filling, antioxidant-rich breakfast or snack.
Zinc, which is found in cells throughout the body and helps fight off pathogens, bacteria, and viruses, is another important nutrient for immune health, says Shapiro.
One way to get your fill of this mineral: red meat. Just one four-ounce serving of ground beef contains 4.8 milligrams of zinc, which is nearly half of the recommended daily intake. Shapiro recommends opting for grass-fed when possible and sticking to three-to-four ounces up to three times per week.
Another perk: Meat is also high in iron, which supports your immune response, says Valdez. (The mineral is essential for production of infection-fighting cells called bacteriostatic cells.)
Don’t eat meat? “Legumes, shellfish, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs, and dark chocolate are all high in zinc, too,” she says.
You may think of ginger as a smoothie ingredient or sushi condiment, but the root has been revered for its immune-boosting properties for thousands of years.
“Ginger helps support the immune system by reducing systemic inflammation in the body,” according to functional medicine expert Dr. Daryl Gioffre, D.C. (While some inflammation is a natural part of the body’s immune response, too much interferes with the immune system.) Turns out the spicy root is packed with antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals, a major factor in systemic inflammation.
Read More: 6 Signs You Have Inflammation
Consuming ginger in any way supports your immune system. So go ahead and add it to your smoothies, eat it alongside sushi, and stir it into stir-fries.
Gioffre likes to make an immune-boosting tea by steeping one inch of ginger root and one inch of turmeric (another immune-boosting food) in boiling water for fifteen minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon and honey and it’s totally cozy.
You may know that the vitamin A in carrots benefits your eyesight—but that’s not all the nutrient is good for.
“Vitamin A is essential for the health of our skin, which helps protect us from outside germs that could make us sick,” says Valdez. In fact, according to one 2018 Journal of Clinical Medicine study, vitamin A “enhances the organism’s immune function and provides an enhanced defense against multiple infectious diseases.” How? You guessed it: It’s an antioxidant.
To get more vitamin A into your diet, Valez recommends loading up on carrots. Just one contains 10,191 IU of vitamin A—over forty percent of the recommended daily intake.
Try roasting the carrots in the oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Or, snacking on them raw with hummus or guacamole.
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