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July 06, 2020 / Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN

5 Foods for a Healthy Immune System

Young couple cooks a healthy meal together in their kitchen

Having a healthy immune system is crucial to help your body fight against infections and inflammation. Healthy behaviors like walking, exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating a balanced diet all contribute to maintaining a healthy immune system.

A well-balanced diet and healthy meal plan can help supply your body with antioxidants, probiotics, and vitamins for a healthy immune system. These mood boosting foods can help your overall health and well-being, which can contribute to a stronger defense against inflammation, infection, and disease. Foods for a healthy immune system vary from vitamin C-rich foods such as citrus fruits to fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kefir.

Benefits of a Healthy Immune System

The immune system is a system of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect your body from harmful compounds, pathogens, and infections. A healthy immune system provides a barrier to keep antigens, or harmful compounds, from entering the body. If an antigen does get through this barrier, the immune system releases white blood cells to fight these compounds and keep them from multiplying.

Although our immune system is designed to keep us healthy, it is possible to have a weakened immune system that does not work in the way it is supposed to. Signs of a weakened immune system include frequent colds, fatigue, high stress levels, digestion issues, wounds that are slow to heal, and frequent infections.

There are multiple approaches that contribute to building a healthier immune system. Lifestyle factors that can enhance your overall immunity include:

Benefits to a healthy immune system include improved sleep, increased energy, lower blood pressure, and fewer infections such as colds. If you’re wondering how to boost your immune system, we compiled a list of foods for a healthy immune system.

1. Eat Vitamin C-Rich Citrus for Immunity

fruit bowl with diced kiwis, grapefruit, oranges, mango, and pomegranate

Vitamin C helps your immune system function properly to protect your body against diseases. It also acts as an antioxidant by protecting cells from the effects of free radicals. Vitamin C is required to make collagen, which is needed to help wounds heal. Overall, vitamin C plays a vital role in your immunity. Because your body does not produce or store vitamin C, it is an essential nutrient to get from your diet.

Foods for a healthy immune system that are rich in vitamin C include:

Vitamin C content is reduced in foods that are heated or stored for a long period of time, however the best sources of vitamin are fresh fruits and vegetables that can be eaten raw.

The recommended amount of vitamin C is 90 milligrams per day for men and 75 milligrams for women, however people who smoke and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding have slightly higher requirements. Eating five servings of different fruits and vegetables is a good way to ensure you’re getting enough vitamin C every day.

If you’re looking for an immunity boost in your food, this strawberry pomegranate smoothie is high in vitamin C and can be made in just five minutes.

2. Increase Antioxidant Intake with Fruits and Veggies

an assortment of nuts, avocados, kale, dark chocolate, salmon, bananas, cauliflower in a green bowl, and a pear

Antioxidants protect your body from the damaging effects of free radicals. Free radicals are harmful molecules that can collect in your body and cause oxidative stress if your body is not able to regulate them. Oxidative stress can cause inflammation and increase the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, COPD, and cancer. Antioxidants are able to neutralize free radicals, which reduces the ability of the free radicals to damage cells.

While some antioxidants are produced in your body, you can also get antioxidants from food. Common types of antioxidants found in food include:

Plant-based foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are some of the best sources of antioxidants, however other whole foods also act as antioxidants. This is why eating a diet rich in whole foods is one of the best ways to make sure you’re eating an antioxidant-rich diet.

Foods high in antioxidants include:

If you’re looking for a dose of antioxidants first thing in the morning, this kiwi-berry yogurt bowl is a great way to start your day.

3. Boost Zinc Levels with Oysters and Shellfish

a fresh seafood plate full of oysters, shellfish, lobster, and mussels over ice with garnishes of lemon, lime and assorted dipping sauces

Zinc is a mineral that plays an important role in how your body and immune system functions. It helps the immune system fight against infectious bacteria and viruses. Zinc also plays a vital role in wound healing, helps the body make protein and DNA, and is necessary in order for our bodies to grow and develop properly.

The Recommended Daily Amount (RDA) for zinc is 8 grams per day for women and 11 grams per day for men. Zinc is found abundantly in food and most healthy people can get adequate amounts of zinc through their diet rather than supplementation.

The best dietary source of zinc is oysters. In fact, six medium oysters provide 33 milligrams of zinc, which is over 300% of the RDA for zinc. Other shellfish are also good sources of zinc, as are meat, poultry, legumes, and some nuts and seeds.

Food sources of zinc include:

This delicious recipe for mussels in garlic-white wine broth is a great way to boost your zinc intake for the day.

4. Reduce Inflammation with Ginger and Turmeric

Ginger tea with mint and lemon on a table next to a cutting board and knife

Inflammation is the immune system’s response to harmful and toxic compounds, bacteria, viruses, and injuries. These compounds can trigger acute or chronic inflammation in different organs in the body, including the heart, liver, kidney, and brain, which can lead to tissue damage or disease. To help fight infections and pathogens, our immune system uses various “tools,” such as white blood cells, lymphocytes, neutrophils, and antibodies.

Certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties and immune-boosting effects, such as turmeric and ginger.

Turmeric is a yellow-orange spice that contains a chemical called curcumin which can act as an antioxidant, has anti-inflammatory properties, and can help protect the liver from harmful toxins. Since curcumin is not well-absorbed in the bloodstream, it’s important to consume turmeric with black pepper, which significantly increases the bioavailability and absorption of curcumin – by up to 2000%. Ginger also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. More specifically, the active compound of ginger, gingerol, can help fight infections.

A few ways to incorporate fresh ginger and turmeric into your diet include:

Enjoy the anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties of ginger and turmeric in this avocado, ginger and turmeric shake.

5. Build Good Bacteria with Fermented Foods

Six jars filled with cucumber pickles, coconut milk yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, red beets, and apple cider vinegar

The microbiome is a collection of microbes, or bacteria, viruses, and fungi, that live on and inside our bodies. The microbiome actively impacts immunity and plays a role in how the immune system develops. The largest collection of microbes lives in the gut, which is why the gut microbiome is so important.

Fermentation is the process of breaking down carbohydrates with bacteria and yeast. The act of fermentation promotes the growth of probiotics, also known as the “good bacteria” and can have a positive effect on the microbiome, gut health, digestion, and immunity. These are considered foods for a healthy immune system because they reduce the risk of infections, among other helpful immune-boosting effects.

Common fermented foods include:

For a delicious dinner with fermented foods, this kimchi and smoked salmon rice bowl recipe has you covered.

The Takeaway

A healthy immune system is essential in keeping you and your body healthy. A healthy immune system can help you fight infections, manage stress, improve sleep, and increase energy levels.

Foods for a healthy immune system include:

Meal planning can take the stress out of meal times and help you maintain a well-balanced, immune-boosting diet. Clean eating meal plans can help you reduce inflammation and improve overall health through the power of a nutrient-dense diet.

Alena Kharlamenko, MS, RD, CDN
Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Consultant @ Alena Menko Nutrition

Alena Kharlamenko is the founder of Alena Menko Nutrition, a food and nutrition blog where she publishes healthful, plant-forward recipes and makes nutrition approachable with easily digestible information. She’s also passionate about gut health and is a Monash FODMAP-Trained Dietitian. When she's not cooking up a storm in the kitchen or behind her computer, she can be found exploring the vast culinary scene of NYC, traveling around the world, or hiking and spending time in nature. You can find Alena on Instagram @thebalancedbite or on Facebook @AlenaMenkoNutrition.

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