The old saying, “An apple a day can keep the doctor away,” may have truth behind it after all. Eating nourishing foods rich in certain vitamins can help your immune system fight off illness.
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We talked to registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, for a closer look at these vitamins, what foods you can find them in and how they can help keep you healthy. Here’s what she had to say:
- Vitamin C is one of the biggest immune system boosters of all. In fact, a lack of vitamin C can even make you more prone to getting sick. Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale and broccoli. Daily intake of vitamin C is essential for good health because your body doesn’t produce or store it. The good news is that vitamin C is in so many foods that most people don’t need to take a vitamin C supplement unless a doctor advises it.
- Vitamin B6 is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system. Vitamin B6-rich foods include chicken and cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna. Vitamin B6 also is found in green vegetables and in chickpeas, which is the main ingredient in hummus.
- Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight off infection. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds and spinach.
How to grocery shop to boost your immunity
A simple rule can help you when choosing fruits and vegetables at the grocery store or farmers market: The more colorful the fruits and vegetables are, the better.
“Try to eat a wide variety of foods, and aim to eat fruit and vegetables from every color of the rainbow,” Zumpano says. “Your plate will be more enticing to look at, and you will ensure that you’re getting as many health-boosting vitamins and nutrients as possible.”
It’s also important to know that you build a strong immune system by maintaining healthy eating habits over time. You can’t eat four oranges at breakfast and expect to be protected that day against catching a cold.
Can supplements help your immunity?
While vitamins and supplements can help fill in the gaps in your diet, the best way to load up on essential nutrients is to get them straight from food.
Your body absorbs and uses vitamins and nutrients better when they come from a dietary source. When it’s a vitamin or supplement, it’s often questionable how much you’re actually getting. Because supplements are regulated as foods, not as drugs, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t evaluate the quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body.
Some supplements may have side effects, especially if taken before surgery or with other medicines. Supplements can also cause problems if you have certain health conditions. And the effects of many supplements haven’t been tested in children, pregnant women and other groups.
It’s especially important to avoid taking vitamin E supplements. Not only is there little clinical research showing that vitamin E supplements benefit your health, but they may also be harmful in some situations.
For these reasons, experts say it’s best to get vitamins through food rather than supplements.
“Talk with your healthcare provider if you’re thinking about taking dietary supplements,” Zumpano says.
Staying hydrated can boost your immune health too, Zumpano says. Water helps your body produce lymph, which carries white blood cells and other immune system cells. Try to avoid overdoing beverages that can make you dehydrated, like coffee. Or try eating more hydrating foods, such as cucumbers, celery or watermelon.