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Boost or Bust: The Truth about Food & Your Immune System

May 26, 2020foods for immunity

A recent nutrition trend urges people to eat certain foods to “boost” their immune system. 

Several Jefferson Health registered dietitians recently weighed in on the topic of truth regarding nutrition and immunity. Their answer is yes — the right foods can be beneficial to support immune health. However, it’s all about balance. Food alone can’t “boost” immunity and serve as an end-all solution to protect against COVID-19 and other illnesses. Instead, the right foods can sustain immunity, making us less susceptible to more severe complications that arise from infection.

It’s important to be mindful of the amount of physical activity we get, our sleep quantity and quality, and how well we manage stress, says Sara J. Madden, RD. When these healthy habits coincide with a healthy diet, our bodies grow stronger.

In terms of nutrition, first thing’s first: cut out processed food. Colorful, plant-based foods; whole grains; and lean proteins are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other nutrients key in supporting immunity.

Good dietary fiber benefits the gut microbiome, meaning it feeds the healthy bacteria in the gut, says Melissa Wadolowski, RDN, LDN, CHC. The stronger these bacteria, the more they ward off harmful pathogens that enter the digestive tract. Fermented foods — such as kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut — are especially helpful for gut health.

Other great whole foods and spices to incorporate into your diet include avocados, peppers, citrus fruits, berries, seeds and nuts (e.g., sunflower seeds, almonds, or walnuts), legumes, cruciferous veggies or leafy greens (e.g., broccoli, kale, spinach, or cabbage), onions and garlic, turmeric, ginger, and fish/shellfish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

In addition to healthy fat and fiber, these foods also contain significant amounts of vitamins A, C, D, and E, and provide other nutrients, such as zinc, potassium, phosphorus, selenium, sulfur, and quercetin. Studies show the rich antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds these contain may aid in reducing your risk for infection, explains Melissa Parisi, RD.

While supplements are sometimes advised by primary care physicians, you shouldn’t rely on them to take the place of whole foods, says Wadolowski. “You can miss out on all the other unique nutritional benefits. Taking vitamin C isn’t the same as consuming oranges, peppers, or broccoli.”

For vitamin D, specifically, it’s crucial to get outside with moderate exposure to the sun as often as possible. “Keep in mind, you may be more prone to vitamin D deficiency if you use SPF-containing cosmetics,” explains Madden. “Try to leave your face product off sometimes, or make sure another part of the body is exposed when you’re outside.”

A healthful tip to help support immunity is to “spice up” your foods with whole seasonings, rather than just salt or pepper, adds Parisi. “Try using more garlic, turmeric, or ginger, which provide natural flavors, and extra anti-inflammatory properties.”

Depending on your current access to local grocery stores and markets, try to stay stocked up on whole foods, and cut back on processed foods as much as possible. A balanced diet, coupled with a healthy lifestyle, can greatly support your immune health. However, reminds Parisi, you don’t have to be perfect — there’s always time for a treat!

To learn more about Nutrition Services offered at Jefferson Health in New Jersey, click HERE.

You can use JeffConnect® for a telehealth consult with a Jefferson doctor anytime, anywhere. For more information on the coronavirus (COVID-19), click HERE.