You can’t boost your immune system but you can support it! Here’s my guide of 10 immune-supporting foods to help you and your family through cold and flu season.
This post is written in partnership with my friends at Made with Local. As always, opinions are my own!
The immune system plays a very important role in your overall health (and the health of your children): it defends against viruses and bacteria. It’s made up of interconnected white blood cells, antibodies, bone marrow, the spleen, thymus and lymphatic system, which work together in harmony to find and destroy pathogens (the things that cause illness).
With Covid-19 in the news, you’ve probably seen many articles and blog posts about how to “boost your child’s immune system” – after all, why not boost the very system that defends against viruses? I can imagine that you’re especially curious about this if you have kids who are in school (I sure know that this is top of mind for me!).
But here’s the thing: the idea of boosting the immune system with supplements or specific foods is misleading and scientifically inaccurate.1 Huh?! Well, a “boost” implies heightened action, which is not what you want – an overactive immune system is linked with autoimmune diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Immune boosting is a marketing term, not a medical term.
There is no single product that can boost immunity
Scientists are still a long way from understanding the complex interplay of parts that allow the immune system to perform at its optimum level, which means there’s no product you can take to “boost” it. Instead, it’s important to focus on supporting your (and your childrens’) immune systems so they function normally. There are many things we can do to support immunity, such as getting enough sleep, being physically active, minimizing stress and eating nutritious foods. As a busy mom, I love finding foods that are not only nutritious and convenient, but also immune supporting.
Certain nutrients, such as zinc, selenium, iron, protein, vitamins A, C, D and E are critical for the function of immune cells. (If you haven’t read my post on why vitamin D is so important for kids all year round, check it out.) Which foods contain these important nutrients?
In this guide, we’ll cover:
Here are my top 10 favourite foods to eat and serve, to support the immune system:
Berries stand out for immune function because of their trinity of fibre, vitamin C and potent antioxidants. A large part of your immune system is located in the intestines – and there’s where berries do their best work. Studies show that berries support of the immune system and beneficial gut microbiota.2 Choose fresh or frozen blueberries, strawberries or blackberries, and add them to yogurt and oatmeal, or eat them as a nourishing snack. Throw them into your child’s lunch or top their yogurt parfaits with them!
2. Orange Vegetables and Fruits
Carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and cantaloupe all boast high levels of beta-carotene, a precursor of vitamin A. Beta-carotene has several health benefits, including the antioxidant activity that protects cells from free radical damage and help enhance immune function.3 Bonus: beta-carotene plays a role in making white blood cells, which are responsible for hunting down and quashing viruses. Choose orange-coloured options daily!
3. Leafy Greens
Embrace salads, but bump up the colour way past pale iceberg. Choose kale, spinach, chard, arugula or collards. Leafy greens also boast high levels of carotenoids (similar to beta carotene), and have similar immune-supporting effects. Kids not a fan of salads? Use leafy greens in smoothies, muffins or stir-fry them with garlic, ginger and a ribbon of olive oil for a delicious side dish.
I’m often asked which nut to eat and I say, “mix it up!” Each nut has a different nutritional value, so choose a variety for the best immune support. Almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts contain vitamin E, which helps increase T-cell count (T-cells directly kill infected host cells and regulate immune responses).4 Walnuts boast the most omega-3 fat. Enjoy some trail mix, or add nuts to salads, pasta or cereal. Or enjoy them in a bar or energy ball! Some of Made with Local’s Real Food bars contain almond butters, as well peanut butter, both loaded with immune supporting nutrients!
Fun fact: peanuts technically aren’t nuts (they’re legumes) but they do contain immune supporting nutrients such as Vitamin E and zinc!
Seeds and seed-containing foods are a go-to for school lunches because they’re school safe. I choose sunflower seeds for their high levels of selenium and vitamin E (both explained above). Pumpkin, hemp and sesame seeds all contain zinc, a mineral that helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses. I love that MWL’s both pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I use their granola bar mixes religiously to make homemade school-safe recipes like bars, bites, muffins and granola! I also add seeds to smoothies, yogurt and salads, and love this snack: spread pumpkin or sunflower seed butter plus a bit of honey on apples, then sprinkle with hemp seeds!
Oats contain immune-supporting nutrients like selenium and zinc. But they also contain a special type of fibre called beta-glucan, which increases immune defense by enhancing macrophages (cells that detect and destroy bacteria and viruses).5 Start your day with oatmeal (my favourite is MWL’s Loaded Oats!), or whirl whole oats in your food processor to make your own oat flour. The main ingredient in MWL’s Granola Mix is oats, which I love; it makes for a perfect base for muffins, granola, granola bars and protein bites.
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout or sardines are excellent choices. They contain a winning combination of vitamin D and omega-3 fats, which both support the immune system. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection,6 and omega-3 fats are part of the structure of all immune cells.7 Try canned tuna in a sandwich; enjoy some sashimi or a sushi hand roll; or try a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon or trout.
8. Fermented Foods
Choose kefir, fermented vegetables (sauerkraut or kimchi), kombucha or yogurt made with active cultures. These foods contain probiotics, which mediate and regulate the immune system.8 Researchers are still trying to figure out which specific probiotic strains to use for different health problems, and the pieces of this puzzle remain incomplete. If a specific probiotic is marketed as an immune-booster, don’t believe the hype. Science isn’t there yet.
You know that perfect buttercup-yellow hue of mustard? That comes from turmeric, a spice that contains curcumin, which has been linked to an enhanced immune response. There’s one problem. Curcumin is unstable and not well absorbed by the body. However, researchers found a solution: when using turmeric, add a dash of black pepper. It helps increase the bioavailability of curcumin by 2000%.9 Try turmeric in stir-fries, curries, stew or make a turmeric latte, known as golden milk.
Protein is needed for proper immune system functioning, and eggs are the gold standard for their high-quality protein. When scientists measure protein quality – known as “biological value,” it’s often evaluated compared to eggs, which are given the perfect score of 100.10 So, scramble up a few eggs or tuck into an omelet. In addition to protein, eggs are also a source of immune-supporting selenium and vitamins A, D and E.
In addition to what you DO eat, it’s also important to point out the foods that you may want to minimize.
Ultra-processed foods, such as soda, candy, fast food and salty snacks lack beneficial nutrients, and can impair the production immune cells and antibodies. Yet another reason why I love Made with Local products – they are minimally processed and nutrient-dense! Of course, treats are fine on occasion, but for immune system support, the 10 foods above should be eaten most often!