Food’s Role in Immune Support

by Joanna Foley

by Joanna Foley

Updated Feb 6, 2024

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If you’re like most people, you probably care a lot about staying healthy. That’s why doing your part to support a strong immune system is so important.  

While doing things like practicing good hygiene, getting enough sleep, and exercising are all great ways to support a strong immune system, there are also many foods that boost the immune system which are another crucial part of living and staying healthy.  

Knowing what nutrients support your immune system, the foods that contain them, and how to incorporate these foods into your daily diet can help you live healthfully all year long.  

Foods That Strengthen Your Immune System

All food is made up of nutrients. These include macronutrients like carbs, protein and fat, as well as micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Depending on what you eat, the nutrients in food can play a role in either strengthening your immune system or harming it.  

Here are 5 nutrients that help support a strong immune system along with examples of the foods that provide them.  

1. Antioxidants

Antioxidants help strengthen your immune system by fighting against free radicals that can cause illness and disease. Vitamins C, E, A, the mineral selenium all serve as antioxidants in your body, and there are also other types of antioxidants found in various foods. Examples of foods and beverages rich in antioxidants include: 

  • Colorful produce like citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, and sweet potatoes 
  • Green tea and spices like turmeric and ginger 
  • Nuts and seeds like almonds and Brazil nuts 
  • Dark chocolate and raw cacao powder 
  • Red meat and wild-salmon 

2. Zinc 

Zinc is a mineral and a key component of your immune system. Having even a mild zinc deficiency can weaken your body’s defense mechanisms, which is why it is often a component in many cold and flu medications. Examples of foods rich in zinc include: 

  • Seafood like wild-caught salmon, shellfish, and oysters 
  • Grassfed beef, bison and wild game 
  • Whole grains like oats, and quinoa 
  • Pumpkin seeds and Cashews 
  • Many beans and other legumes like chickpeas and lentils 

3. Vitamin D 

Vitamin D has been shown by an abundance of research to benefit the immune system to help protect from and fight against disease. Vitamin D is unique in that very few foods naturally provide it, though it is easily obtained from sunlight exposure.  

Foods that do provide some vitamin D include: 

  • Egg yolks 
  • Mushrooms that have been exposed to sunlight 
  • Oily fish such as salmon and sardines 
  • Cod liver oil 
  • Fortified foods such milk and orange juice 

4. Prebiotics and Probiotics

Probiotics are a type of healthy bacteria that support proper functioning of your digestive tract. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that serve as fuel for probiotics to do their job. Both of these nutrients are essential for a strong immune system since nearly 80% of your body’s immune cells are located in your gut. Consuming pre and probiotics is an important part of strengthening your immune system.  

Examples of foods containing probiotics include: 

  • Yogurt with live and active cultures 
  • Fermented vegetables like kimchi and sauerkraut 
  • Fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir  

Examples of foods containing prebiotics include: 

  • Some vegetables such as onions and asparagus 
  • Certain fruits like apples and unripe bananas 
  • Honey  
  • Chicory root and inulin, which are often added to manufactured food products 

5. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

These are a type of unsaturated fat that have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Since chronic inflammation can weaken immune function, these fats can help reduce its severity and decrease disease risk. This is especially true for people with autoimmune disorders. Examples of omega-3 foods that help reduce inflammation include: 

  • Fatty fish like wild salmon, tuna and mackerel 
  • Walnuts 
  • Chia, flax and hemp seeds 

How To Add These Nutrients Into Your Daily Diet

It is always best to try and get each of these nutrients from whole food sources, since they will be able to be best absorbed and utilized in your body that way. However, taking supplements is another option that is sometimes indicated when your diet cannot or does not supply an adequate source of the nutrient.  

Creating an eating plan for a strong immune system doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are a few simple ways to include foods that strengthen your immune system into your daily diet: 

  1. Add chia or hemp seeds to a bowl of yogurt or mix them into oatmeal.
  1. Add ground flaxseed to a smoothie, along with leafy greens and colorful berries.
  1. Snack on fruit like apples, bananas and citrus, and on nuts like almond, walnuts and cashews.
  1. Enjoy beverages like kombucha, green tea and kefir.
  1. Plan ahead and choose meals with different quality proteins from our menu.

On the flip side, eating foods like processed foods and foods high in added sugar can weaken your immune system and should therefore be limited.  

In Summary

Eating foods that boost the immune system isn’t just important when you’re sick, but all year long. Making simple adjustments to your diet to include more colorful produce, nuts, fermented foods, and other foods that strengthen your immune system is a great way to support your overall health. Thankfully, you can do so in a way that is both practical and delicious for you! 

Check out the rotating menu of meals made fresh each week from quality ingredients.  

By: Joanna Foley, RD

Joanna Foley, RD, is a freelance health writer and author of two cookbooks based in San Diego, California. Learn more about her writing services and the companies she works with at joannafoleynutrition.com/press 

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