Immune-Boosting Bites

Fortify your body against infection by eating a balanced diet chock full of whole foods

Written by Alex Keith

Doctors dub it respiratory virus season. You might call it feeling under the weather. No matter how you slice it, the months for cold and flu will soon be upon us, serving up fevers, chills, aches, coughs and runny noses aplenty. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 56-million people contracted influenza between the fall of 2019 and early spring of 2020. So, what can be done to take a bite out of this viral spiral?

Vaccines certainly help bolster our immunity to viruses, but a healthy diet also plays an important role in preparing the body for contact with invading pathogens. “We need to eat a variety of whole foods to meet our complex nutrient requirements and thus strengthen our immune system,” explains Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated registered dietitian Jillian Morgan. “All macronutrients—fat, protein and carbohydrates—provide the body with energy to fight illnesses.” Certain nutrients can also help facilitate the body’s immune response by aiding in cell development, cell metabolism and energy production.

Here, Morgan reviews a few key nutrients: vitamins B6, C, D and E; zinc; iron and folic acid. Turn to produce, poultry, shellfish, nuts and seeds to rev up the immune system and keep infection and inflammation at bay. The dietitian recommends obtaining nutrients from food first and foremost but points out that supplements such as multivitamins may be beneficial for those who cannot gain all their micronutrients with a balanced diet.

Gut health also plays a vital role in immune function. Probiotics, which are lab-cultured microorganisms found in yogurt, kefir and fermented vegetables, live in the intestine alongside other naturally occurring bacteria. These microbiota communicate with the immune system and help stave off inflammation. Bananas, apples, whole grains, garlic, onions and flaxseeds contain a dietary fiber known as prebiotics that feed these good bacteria.

Morgan directs us to rely on whole foods, those in their natural state, rather than processed or refined foods. While occasionally eating processed foods won’t completely sabotage your immune system, she says, “the key to giving your body the best chance to meet its needs is to stock your environment with plenty of whole foods that you enjoy, including fruits, veggies, grains, proteins and healthy fats.”

Kid-Tested, Immuno-Approved

Lunch boxes provide a prime opportunity to bolster your little one’s bodily defenses. Instead of packaged chips, white-bread sandwiches and syrup-soaked fruit cups, try these delicious and nutritious foods that kids will dig into—after washing their hands, of course!

Simply citrus: Oranges, mandarins and tangerines come in a perfect package bursting with vitamin C but can be hard to peel. Try this: slice off the top and bottom peels and split down the side. Crack open like a book for easy-to-eat wedges.

Chicken noodle soup: A hot Thermos-ful provides gut-healthy broth and poultry packed with vitamin B-6, which is essential to red blood cell formation. Make it from scratch and cater the ingredients to your child’s tastes.

Yogurt parfait: Choose plain yogurt fortified with defense-building vitamin D, then dress it up with crunchy granola and fresh berries for fiber and vitamin C.

Egg muffins: Bake a batch of tiny frittatas with cheese and veggies. Add broccoli, bell peppers, and spinach to this protein-laden finger food to sneak in antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins C and E.

Pita pockets: Whole-grain mini pitas hold a pocketful of vitamin B, fiber and folic acid and can be stuffed with any protein-produce combo. Think ham, cheese, and lettuce; almond butter and thawed frozen berries; peanut butter and banana; or chicken salad and apples.

Kid crudite: Little ones are big on dipping, so mix dry Ranch seasoning with a spoonful of plain yogurt (there’s that vitamin D again), then offer a rainbow of raw veggies (and vitamins) like bell peppers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, celery and snow peas.

Apple jack: Use vanilla yogurt to sweeten a dollop of peanut or nut butter (high in vitamins B-6 and E as well as zinc and iron) , sprinkle on some cinnamon, then dip fiber-filled apple slices.

Photographs by (father & daughter) Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock &
(apples) Inewsfoto/Shutterstock

More Family Health Research:

A Healthy Start

New research reveals that even moderate exercise boosts the long-term benefits of breast milk

When a mother engages in physical activity during and after pregnancy, her breast milk gets a beneficial bump. A study published this summer in Nature Metabolism shows that maternal exercise leads to an increase in oligosaccharide 3’-sialyllactose (3SL), which reduces baby’s lifelong risks of serious health issues such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. The compound also works to build the immune system, develop gut microbiota and suppress the infectivity of bacteria and viruses such as influenza.

After using mice to establish that these health benefits are passed through breast milk rather than simply inherited, researchers tracked activity levels in 150 pregnant and postpartum women. Those with a higher step count also had elevated levels of 3SL in their breast milk. Even moderate activity such as a daily walk pumped up the presence of this complex carbohydrate.

Understanding that not all mothers are able to breastfeed, scientists are now working to isolate the compound and add it to infant formula. We’ve long known that exercise acts to boost overall health and wellness in new mothers; now we know such movement benefits babies, too.

Photograph by Sutlafk/shutterstock