A Comprehensive Guide to Immune-Boosting Foods

Discover the best foods to help prevent seasonal colds and speed up recovery if you’re feeling under the weather

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COVID-19 pandemic or not, it’s important to build your immune system as cold and flu season approaches. Although eating certain foods can’t prevent you from getting sick, developing a healthy lifestyle based on exercise and a balanced diet can go a long way in strengthening your immune system. 

Eating immune-boosting superfoods high in essential vitamins and minerals as well as healthy fats can boost your immune function, improve your overall health and help protect against an array of sicknesses and diseases, from the common cold to heart disease. 

The great news is that most of these nutrients can be gained from common foods that can be easily prepared. Be aware, however, that heat can diminish the potency of some nutrients or destroy them entirely. It’s important to know how storage and preparation can change the nutritional value of your food, for better or worse. 

Here’s a guide to storing and preparing different foods to reap the maximum nutritional value. For example, cooking veggies like red bell peppers or spinach can weaken their effectiveness of vitamin C, so they are best eaten raw. In fact, raw spinach contains triple the vitamin C of cooked spinach. 

On the other hand, hot-brewed coffee contains about twice the antioxidants of cold-brewed coffee (cold-brewed is just as good otherwise if you’re not going for maximum antioxidant value). Apart from cooking methods, storage also plays a major role in getting the most nutritional benefit.  

Okay, let’s get on with it! Here is your guide to the best foods to boost your immune system.

Leafy greens

A variety of leafy greens
Source: NaturesPlus

These are full of beneficial nutrients such as vitamin K, folate, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium and fiber. Find your favorite leaves, like  kale, spinach, arugula, collard greens, dandelion greens or the many others, and make a great salad.

For example, try a cranberry walnut salad. Here are some other great recipe ideas for dressing up your greens. 

NOTE: If you take blood thinners or other medications, please consult your physician before adding or increasing the amount of leafy greens into your diet, as vitamin K can inhibit the effectiveness of blood thinners.

Seafood and shellfish

Salmon steak, a bowl of shrimp and other foods containing healthy fats like omega-3
Source: WebMD

Assuming you’re not allergic to them, shellfish and other seafood like oysters, salmon, mackerel and shrimp contain zinc, which is thought to help fight viruses by triggering white blood cell activity.

Pomegranates

High in flavonoid antioxidants as well as anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties, pomegranate is a preventative, therapeutic and flavorful addition to a healthy diet. Add to yogurt, salads or smoothies.

Sunflower seeds

Sunflower seed kernels
Source: Healthline

Sunflower seeds are best eaten raw, as opposed to roasted, for the most potent doses of vitamins B1 and E. Despite coming from this tiny seed, vitamin E is another antioxidant of epic proportions that fights the free radicals that can cause cancer, heart disease and other diseases. Sunflower seeds are also a great source of healthy fats. Add them to a salad or eat them as a snack.

Citrus fruits

A variety of citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, blood orange and mandarin orange
Source: The Spruce Eats; Stocksy / Cameron Whitman

The best way to get a boost of vitamin C is from eating citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruit, as well as red bell peppers and green leafy vegetables. Fruit juices like orange juice are also a great source of vitamin C. Another option is to take vitamin C supplements. It’s not a cure, but vitamin C can help strengthen your immune system.

Watermelon

Watermelon sliced into wedges
Source: Live Science; Image credit: © junyanjiang | Shutterstock

It’s a sweet summer treat, sure. But watermelon also provides vitamin C, more lycopene than tomatoes, carotenoids that get turned into vitamin A and an anti-inflammatory compound called cucurbitacin E, which may reduce obesity and related metabolic diseases and has proven effectiveness against inflammation, cancer, atherosclerosis and diabetes.

Turmeric

Turmeric root in a bowl and ground turmeric in another bowl
Source: WebMD

Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin, which is responsible for its vibrant orange color and incredibly potent anti-inflammatory properties.

Sweet potatoes

The body turns the beta carotene found in sweet potatoes into vitamin A, boosting white blood cell count and helping fight free radicals as a powerful antioxidant. Fortunately, cooking greatly increases the bioavailability of beta carotene. Try these tasty ways to prepare sweet potatoes and enjoy the huge nutritional value.

Chicken soup

Source: NYT Cooking


A classic home remedy, chicken soup brings more than warm fuzzy feelings when you’re feeling under the weather. It can also help boost your immune system to fight cold and flu viruses in the first place. There’s even science to back it up.

Coffee

Roasted whole coffee beans
Source: WebMD

Although a cup of joe isn’t the best option when you’re actually sick, it’s a great source of antioxidants to boost your immune system ahead of time. Not only that, coffee is also one of the best brain foods!

One of coffee’s superpowers is its incredibly high antioxidant content. But that means black coffee. Adding sugars, sweeteners, creamers and flavorings counteracts or negates the benefits of drinking natural black coffee.

When it comes to antioxidants, which is healthier: cold-brew coffee or hot-brew coffee? Research has shown that cold-brewing coffee (as opposed to brewing with hot water and then cooling down) reduces acidity, but also reduces antioxidant levels by about 50%.

Dark chocolate

When it comes to dark chocolate, the higher the cocoa content, the darker and healthier it is. The most beneficial dark chocolate has cocoa contents ranging from 70% to 85% to 90% cocoa. Dark chocolate is a nutritional powerhouse containing fiber, iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium, as well as fatty acids like saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. And it just keeps going.

The antioxidants in cocoa and dark chocolate fight free radicals that can cause cancer and heart disease. The darkest chocolates contain more antioxidant power than both blueberries and acai berries, which are already high in antioxidants. So indulge in some luxurious dark chocolate and see if it has enough healthy properties to disarm that pesky guilt. You can often find dark chocolate in combination with other healthy foods like almonds and peanut butter with almonds

Ginger

Ginger tea, ginger root and slices of lemon and orange
Source: WebMD

The health benefits of ginger are both historic and supported by scientific research. Some of the highlights include treating nausea and providing powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Fresh ginger may also help fight a virus that causes respiratory infections. It can also help reduce risk of infections.

Use fresh ginger root to make your own homemade ginger root tea to soothe your sore throat, all while gaining the rest of ginger’s health benefits.

Another option is ginger kombucha, which combines the health benefits of the root and the ancient fermented tea beverage. The combination of probiotics and antioxidants offer another way to hydrate.

Honey

Honey stick, a honey jar and honeycomb
Source: CNN

A popular ingredient in a variety of cold-fighting drinks like green tea, honey can help soothe sore throats, but also has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties

Remember, though: Don’t give honey to children under 1 year old.

Over-the-counter (OTC) immune-boosting supplements

Not everyone has access to fresh fruits, vegetables and ginger roots all the time. Thankfully, several OTC options are available most places. Here are a few options that are always good to have around.


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Check out these posts on the best brain foods and natural cold remedies for more foods to add to your healthy lifestyle. And be sure to browse our Healthies section for healthy snacks delivered with care to you wherever you are.

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