By: Ani Manukian, RDN, LDN
The food we eat has a profound effect on every facet of health, from prevention of chronic disease and cancer, to improved mental health. Immunity is no exception – eating the right foods can support a robust immune system, in turn warding off illness and helping us recover faster if we do get sick.
Vitamins that Support a Strong Immune System
Vitamin C is well-known for its immune-supporting benefits and can be found in abundance in citrus fruits, and also in vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, leafy greens, potatoes and tomatoes. Vitamin C is also found in many herbs such as cilantro, thyme and parsley.
Vitamins B6, (pyridoxine), B9 (folate) and B12 (cyanocobalamin) play an integral part in immune function. Vitamin B6 is found primarily in animal foods such as dairy, eggs, meat and fish, as well as spinach, sweet potatoes, peas, bananas, chickpeas and avocado. Vitamin B9 is plentiful in plant foods, including beans and lentils, asparagus, spinach, broccoli, avocados and mangos. It is important to note that Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods such as dairy, eggs, meat and fish, so vegans and vegetarians should supplement adequately.
Fat-Soluble Vitamins for the Win
There are three fat-soluble vitamins that are associated with immune support. These nutrients should always be eaten with a source of healthy fat such as olive oil or nuts to aid absorption and optimal utilization.
Vitamin E is plentiful in wheat germ, sunflower seeds, sunflower oil, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, peanut butter and spinach.
Vitamin A is found in significant amounts in animal foods such as beef liver (three ounces provides a whopping 731% of the Daily Value!), herring, eggs (especially pasture-raised eggs) and dairy. Orange-hued vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cantaloupe, red peppers and mangos, are another great source of vitamin A.
Vitamin D is naturally plentiful in dairy and fatty fish such as trout, sockeye salmon and sardines. It’s also found in cod liver oil, the yolks of pasture-raised eggs, and in plant sources such as white mushrooms that have been sliced and exposed to UV light, and soy products. Vitamin D is also manufactured by the body as a result of sun exposure. Spending adequate time outdoors and in nature not only helps support the immune system through vitamin D production in the body, but also by reducing stress and supporting a sense of calm.
Iron is plentiful in animal sources in the form of heme (an essential molecule that contains iron); these sources include shrimp, tuna, oysters, beef, liver, eggs and sardines. Iron is found in smaller amounts in plant foods in the non-heme form, including in white beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, dark chocolate, leafy greens, tomato paste, potatoes and fortified breakfast cereals. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed as heme iron, but combining plant sources with vitamin C-rich foods helps the body extract and absorb as much as possible.
Zinc is an immune-supporting mineral that’s also plentiful in animal sources, especially oysters, which provide more than any other food by a great margin. Other plentiful sources include seafood like crab and lobster, as well as beef, pork, cheese, beans, pumpkin seeds and cashews.
Selenium is most concentrated in Brazil nuts, with just one ounce providing 989% of the Daily Value. The next best sources of selenium are animal foods, especially seafood like yellowfin tuna, halibut, sardines and shrimp. Other animal sources of this immune-supporting nutrient include ham, beef and beef liver, turkey, chicken, eggs and dairy products. Plant sources of selenium include whole grains such as brown rice, whole wheat products and oatmeal.
Garlic and ginger have antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, making them wise choices to add to your diet during the months when illness is more likely.
Fall Recipe Roster
To help you get started on eating for a strong immune system, we’ve gathered our favorite autumn-inspired recipes, with each featuring one or more immune-boosting nutrients. Mix and match these recipes into your meal rotation for your best health this fall!