First things first: no food is going to act as armor against viruses or bacteria — dietitians and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree. But there are certain vitamins and features of food that will help your body better fight off foreign invaders.
“For our immune system to work optimally, we need to have adequate levels of everything our bodies use to function well, like vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants. Taking extra won’t necessarily boost immunity, but having enough will allow for proper immune function,” explains Lauren Harris-Pincus, M.S., R.D.N., founder of NutritionStarringYou.com and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club. Plus, a healthy diet can aid in recovery from certain ailments and make vaccines more effective.
Some key vitamins that support immunity include vitamins A, B6, C and E, as well as folic acid. The minerals zinc, selenium, iron and copper have also been shown to boost the body’s natural defenses. And don’t forget to get plenty of fiber, which helps maintain a healthy microbiome and protects against chronic inflammation.
But don’t be fooled into thinking you can just pop a handful of supplements to cover your bases. “Food is the most important way to consume these nutrients, because in their natural state, you also benefit from the fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals present in the food. You are way better off eating an orange than taking a vitamin C pill,” Harris-Pincus says.
While the pantry staples here can prime your system to fight back against everything from the flu to the common cold, remember that your diet is only part of the equation. “In addition to a balanced diet, focus on getting enough exercise and plenty of high-quality sleep, managing stress and washing your hands properly and often,” says Michelle Hyman, R.D., C.D.N.
“Much of our immune function begins in our gut, and high-fiber foods help to keep the good bacteria in our gut happy,” Harris-Pincus says.
Only about 5% of Americans score the recom mended daily dose of fiber, 25 to 38 grams, set out by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Not only are beans a solid source of fiber (about 8 grams per half-cup), but some varieties can also give you a dose of immune-strengthening zinc.
“A half-cup of cooked chick-peas provides 12% of your daily value for zinc, important since even a mild zinc deficiency is believed to negatively impact immunity,” Hyman says. “Drain and rinse canned chickpeas to reduce the sodium content, then add a bottled salad dressing, such as vinaigrette, or make your own dressing with oil, vinegar of your choice and spices for a bean salad. You can also roast chickpeas for a crunchy snack.”
You can whip up hummus or add chickpeas to a grain and veggie power bowl, suggests Cassie Majestic, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Orange County, California.
2. Canned Pineapple
Since it’s packed within hours of harvest to retain the most nutrients, canned produce can be just as nutritious as fresh options, says Harris-Pincus—and a study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
Canned pineapple with no sugar added, in particular, gets a thumbs-up from Hyman. “Canned pineapple provides a good amount of vitamin C,” she says. “Snacking on fruit, whether it’s fresh, frozen or canned, will add more fiber and vitamins to your diet. I like to make a smoothie with unsweetened almond milk, frozen spinach and pineapple.”
Peanuts, almonds and cashews (as well as the nuts butter they turn into) are rich in magnesium and vitamin E. Just 1 ounce of almonds (23 nuts) offers 45% of your daily value for vitamin E, which has been proven to help maintain your immune defenses, according to Japanese research. “Nuts or nut butter work with any meal,” Majestic says. “Nut butter can be added to a smoothie or spread on a piece of whole-grain toast. A handful of almonds can serve as a snack or a yummy addition to a salad.”
The curcumin in turmeric, the key ingredient in many curries and trendy golden milk, acts as an anti-inflammatory and modulates the immune system, according to a study in the Journal of Clinical Immunology. More research is needed, but it can’t hurt to spice up your food with some turmeric. “Pair it with black pepper to make it even more effective,” Hyman suggests.
The standard American diet is generally high in refined grains, unhealthy fats and excessive added sugars, which tend to harm gut bacteria. Whole grains, including oats, feed them what they need to thrive. “Oats are a source of prebiotic fiber and something that can be used in many different ways, including overnight oats or pancakes, ground into a flour for baked goods or as a binder in savory dishes,” Harris-Pincus says.
6. Canned Tomatoes
For a simple and affordable addition of vitamins A and C, stock up on canned tomatoes. Low sodium canned tomato soup, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes—they all work wonderfully and have a long shelf life. Plus, canned tomatoes have more lycopene, a carotenoid that may help prevent prostate and breast cancer, than fresh tomatoes do.
Dunk your grilled cheese in that tomato soup or incorporate healthy recipes using canned tomatoes into your weekly meal plan.
Hyman wants to drive home this message: “As much as 70% of our immune system is within our gut. The foods we eat impact our gut microbiome, for better or for worse. Prioritize a nutritionally dense diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.”