Your immune system is an incredibly important part of your body. Its main function is to help protect your body from disease and pathogens. While it is true that eating well or having a good diet can ‘support’ your immune system there are no particular foods that can ‘boost’ your immune system. In fact a boosted immune system means your body is responding in an abnormal way or has gone into overdrive, which is to be avoided.
To help you ‘support’ your immune system I’ve detailed below some healthy eating advice
1. Eat a healthy, balanced diet including plenty of vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, proteins, healthy fats and dairy (or plant-based alternatives). By following this approach you will provide your body with all the energy and nutrients it needs. In turn, this will keep your immune system functioning as it should.
2. There aren’t any specific foods you should be eating ‘more of’ to support your immune system. This is because a variety of nutrients support our immune systems to function properly and we don’t eat nutrients in isolation. Some of the key nutrients involved include:
- selenium (found in brazil nuts, sardines, eggs etc.)
- zinc (found in meat, fish, beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, wholemeal bread & quinoa etc.)
- iron (found in meat, fish, eggs, lentils, pulses & beans etc.)
- vitamin C (found in citrus fruits, berries, peppers, broccoli etc.)
- vitamin A (found in eggs, spinach, chard etc.)
- antioxidants (from vegetables & fruit).
However, remember if you are eating well and getting sufficient variety in your diet, you should be getting enough of these nutrients without placing a special focus on them. For example, you don’t need to be eating brazil nuts every day to get your selenium requirements.
3. Vegetables and fruit are a really important part of our daily diet. We know that on average adults in this country are not hitting the x5 day target. Aim for at least x5 vegetable and fruit portions per day but more if you can. A portion is approximately 80g or the amount that fits in to the palm of your hand. Eat a rainbow – from yellow and green, to red and purple to get a wide range of nutrients including antioxidants.
4. Up your plant-based food sources. Fruit, vegetables and other plant-based foods (nuts, seeds, grains, beans, pulses etc.) contain fibre that supports diversity in our gut microbiome, which in turn, supports our immune system. 70% of our immune system is found within our digestive tract. Fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and kimchi are also good options and fermented dairy products e.g. kefir. Advice from gut health specialists is to aim for x30 different plant-based foods per week. If 30 is proving difficult, try 15 and work up from there. Trying out new foods can really make a difference here. Swap rice for a different type of grain. Roast a different selection of vegetables to your usual preference.
5. If you are eating a healthy, balanced diet supplementation isn’t always necessary. However, during the winter months everyone in the UK is recommended to take a vitamin D supplement of 10mcg/day, because we can’t get enough of it from the food we eat.
6. Remember other parts of your lifestyle support your immune system too. Make sure you are getting enough sleep. Try and manage your stress and anxiety levels (which may be difficult during the current coronavirus pandemic). Find something that works for you – try mindfulness, meditation, yoga, time off social media. Try and include movement in your daily schedule even if it just for a walk in the local area, some yoga practice or an online HIIT workout at home.
Rebecca Stevens (MSc, ANutr)
AfN Registered Associate Nutritionist
Rebecca’s areas of focus include pregnancy, post-natal, weaning and family nutrition. As a mother of three young children (5, 6 & 8), she has first-hand experience of the importance of eating well during these life stages and is well-practiced in feeding hungry kids in a healthy yet convenient way!