Can your diet help to keep you healthy?
Many of us are looking at what can keep our immune systems in peak condition. While a constant supply of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants is required to keep it functioning at its best, healthy foods or supplements aren’t the be-all and end-all. Our immune systems are influenced by a number of different factors, not just one specific nutrient. Getting enough sleep and exercising regularly – as well as eating a balanced diet – are all key for supporting the body to fight infection and disease.
The immune system is the body’s major safeguard against infection, illness and disease. It contains a vast network of cells, tissues and organs which co-ordinate the body’s defences against bacteria, viruses and toxins that may threaten our health. One of the main components of our immune system is the millions of defensive white blood cells that patrol the blood stream and lymphatic system, constantly on the lookout for suspicious signs of disease. Once detected, our immune system mounts a response to fight an infection and remembers it for the next time.
What we eat can support the immune system by providing the body with the nutrients required to build a protective response and counteract oxidative stress including antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals and fibre. Try to include a wide range of colourful whole foods, fruits and vegetables from the list below; the more variety the better.
Best foods to support immunity:
The humble orange might not grab headlines like other, trendier ‘superfoods’, but blood oranges are the real superstars of the citrus family. They contain five times the antioxidant activity of a regular orange with the same amount of vitamin C. Research has shown that a daily glass of blood orange juice for seven days could help reduce inflammation and raise antioxidant levels in the blood.
Greek yogurt contains probiotics and is packed with more protein than regular yogurt. A published meta-analysis discovered that people who ate probiotics daily had a lower risk of catching a cold than those who did not eat any probiotic-rich food.
Pomegranate contains polyphenols that can help treat and prevent coughs and colds. Studies have shown that concentrated amounts of polyphenol antioxidants, like those found in pomegranate juice, can reduce the duration of a cold by as much as 40 per cent.
Brazil nuts contain selenium, an important mineral to protect against oxidative stress. Selenium has also been shown to help the body fight viral infections so including a couple of Brazil nuts each day as part of a meal or snack can ensure the immune system has enough selenium to stay strong.
Wild salmon is filled with zinc, a nutrient that has been proven to assist with reducing common cold symptoms. It is also high in omega-3 fatty acids which assist in reducing inflammation, prevent viral infections and enhance the functioning of immune cells.
Research from the University of California reported broccoli can be a great addition to your diet if you’re trying to prevent a cold. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables were proven to help boost immunity, because of the sulforaphane, a plant chemical in the vegetable, which switches on antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells. In doing so, they combat free radicals to reduce the risk of disease.
Green tea is frequently included on lists of super healthy foods for good reason. It contains flavonoids, an antioxidant that boosts immunity, and has anti-inflammatory properties. According to a study, it’s the antioxidant catechin, which is heavily prevalent in green tea, that is a powerful antibacterial and antiviral and can kill off cold-starting bacteria and the influenza virus.
When it comes to treating a common cold, ginger is one of the best foods for relief. In a review published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers found that ginger’s potent anti-inflammatory properties were key in the root’s powers to combat a cold or flu.
Shallots contain as much as six times more polyphenols than some everyday onions. This is down to the quercetin content. Quercetin plays an important role in helping the body combat free radical damage which is linked to disease.
Dark chocolate contains magnesium which is a vital mineral for supporting the immune system. Magnesium helps lymphocytes bind to pathogens so they can be removed from the body. Make sure to choose the very dark chocolate (80 per cent cocoa and over), to get the most magnesium and immune-boosting benefits.
With twice the vitamin C content of an orange and loaded with antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin, kiwis are bite for bite one of the most nutritionally dense fruits in the world! Various compounds from vitamin C and fibre, to carotenes and polyphenols, have been shown to be beneficial to immune function and all of these also just so happen to be found in a kiwi.
Many herbs and spices are known for their antimicrobial and immune boosting properties. Oregano is one such herb that is worth including in your cooking. It contains essential oils which are known for their antimicrobial, antiviral and antifungal properties and could be helpful in treating bacterial infections.
The bottom line
What we eat can influence our immune system, with certain foods associated with lowering the risk of disease or reducing recovery time if we do get ill. As always, the bottom line is to choose fresh, whole foods as much as possible, and to eat a wide variety of colourful (and tasty) foods. By including fewer ultra-processed foods, you can reduce disease risk and promote healthy immune function.