Top Five Foods to Boost Immunity


Citrus fruit illustration. (Medium)By Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, CSSD

Winter brings more than its share of cold and flu viruses. The average young person gets anywhere from 6 to 10 colds a year, and the dry heat of winter air and close proximity to others means it is easier to spread those nasty germs. Instead of heading to the medicine cabinet, try the kitchen cabinet to find foods rich in the nutrients that keep your immune system strong all winter long.

  1. Probiotic foods (those foods that contain good bacteria for a healthy gut) can enhance immunity. Your guts contain 2 to 3 pounds of bacteria and emerging research shows that the type of bacteria that live in your gastro-intestinal tract can prevent disease by acting as a natural antibiotic. Registered dietitian JoAnn Hattner, author of Gut Insight (www.gutinsight.com) points out that 70% of our immune function takes place in the gut so eating foods rich in probiotics is a good idea to stay healthy. Yogurt is the most obvious probiotic food and other foods that contain helpful bacteria are kefir, miso (fermented paste of soybeans used to make miso soup), tempeh (another fermented soybean product) and sauerkraut.
  2. Citrus foods are rich in vitamin C, a nutrient that is often tied to preventing the common cold. Many people load up on vitamin C when they feel a cold coming on but research does not support that supplements can prevent a cold. But, eating vitamin C rich citrus foods contain plant compounds called citrus flavones that also have anti-inflammatory properties. Now is the peak season for oranges and grapefruit and for my favorite, Clementine tangerines. I like their size, ease of peeling and free of pips…the proper term for citrus seeds.
  3. Nuts and seeds are good sources of the fat-soluble vitamin E. In addition to being a potent antioxidant, this nutrient is also important in immune function. Sunflower seeds and almonds have the highest vitamin E content of any seed or nut and they both make great snacks. Make your own immune-boosting trail mix with unsalted mini-almonds, sunflower seeds and dried fruit.
  4. Meat and shellfish are not only good sources of protein but also contain the mineral zinc, important for wound healing and a strong immune system. Choose lean beef or pork and shellfish like lobster and crab to get a good source of zinc. And don’t be afraid of the dark; chicken thigh and drumsticks are higher in zinc than white meat chicken breast.
  5. Carbohydrate-rich foods are not only good for muscle fuel but some researchers think that carbohydrate ingested during exercise can counter the rise in stress hormones that are a natural part of exercise. During hard training, plan to consume carbohydrate-rich snacks like sports drinks, fruit or vegetable juices, fresh or dried fruit and whole grain crackers to help keep you stay strong all winter long. 

Chris Rosenbloom is the sports dietitian for Georgia State University Athletic Department and is the editor of the American Dietetic Association’s Sports Nutrition Manual, 5th edition, scheduled for publication in 2012.