Should you eat certain foods for immunity?
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
We’ve all heard that when you’re sick, chicken soup and hot tea are key to beating an illness into submission. But can food really make you better? And perhaps more importantly, can food keep you from getting sick in the first place?
Can eating certain foods really boost your immune system?
While no single food is a magic cure when you’re sick, eating a healthy diet full of vitamins and minerals that support your immune system can boost your immunity, which can prevent illness and help you bounce back sooner when you do get sick.
“There’s no doubt that a healthy diet improves your immunity to illness,” says immunologist Cassandra Calabrese, DO. “What you put in your body is important for your overall health, including your immune system.”
As your immune system is your body’s defense against invaders like the flu, it pays to feed it well. Here’s a plus: The best immune-boosting foods are available at the grocery store, and there’s no extreme fad dieting required.
Dr. Calabrese talks about foods that boost immunity during flu season and all year round.
Eat more omega-3 fats to keep your immune system in good shape. Fatty fish are a good source of this anti-inflammatory fat, so consider eating:
- Albacore tuna.
Some fish contain mercury and other contaminants that can be harmful to fetuses or children. Pregnant or nursing women and parents of small children should check with a doctor about eating fish, too.
You’ve probably guzzled orange juice when you were sick, hoping the vitamin C would work its magic on any germs floating around in your body.
Vitamin C, which may prevent or shorten infections by promoting immune cell functions, can be found in most citrus fruits like:
Eating this pungent vegetable comes with plenty of health benefits like improving your heart health. But garlic may also boost your immune function thanks to alliin, which is linked to supporting the response of white blood cells that fight the flu or cold viruses.
Try adding garlic to your salad dressing or roasting with zucchini and tomatoes.
A mainstay in Asian and Indian cuisines, the spice has also been used for centuries in Eastern medicine. And that’s for a good reason — ginger contains vitamin C, magnesium and potassium.
And while you may find yourself using ginger in your baking and wintertime lattes or teas, know that it may also help ease inflammation and nausea in addition to adding a flavor boost.
“Ginger has many health benefits, probably most commonly known as a food that can help with nausea, but ginger also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects,” notes Dr. Calabrese.
From curries to golden lattes, turmeric has been a staple in how we eat. The spice is touted for its ability to boost the immune system and act as an anti-viral. That’s due to the spice’s level of curcumin, which helps lessen inflammation and fights free radicals.
You may recall childhood arguments with your mom about eating your broccoli. It seems they were onto something.
The stalky vegetable is full of vitamins A, C and E, plus it’s a good source of fiber. But when it comes to boosting your immune system, you’ll have to thank its sulfur compounds that aid in the production of glutathione.
Research shows that glutathione, an antioxidant, attacks free radicals, reducing their damage to your immune system.
In addition to citrus fruits, bell peppers (look for the yellow or red varieties) are surprisingly high in vitamin C — containing about three times as much as an orange.
To get more of the immune-boosting food into your diet, try working bell peppers into your salads or stewing them with tomatoes and radishes.
The leafy green is an excellent source of vitamin A (especially beta-carotene), which is known as an infection fighter. But spinach also contains a good dose of folate, which research shows may help bolster your immune system.
Beyond mixing spinach into your salads, you can blend a handful into smoothies or make a heart-healthy spinach artichoke dip.
When you think of how yogurt and its probiotics help your gut health (keeping it full of good bacteria), it makes sense that eating this dairy-based food may also help your immune system.
Research shows that there’s a connection between your immune system and your gut microbiome — they work with each other to minimize pathogens and enhance immune responses.
But before you go all-in on yogurt, make sure you consider how much added sugar it has and look for brands that use live, active cultures. Greek yogurt is always a good bet. And you can incorporate the creamy yogurt into recipes like a carrot and raisin slaw.
We tend to reach for a handful of almonds for an easy, healthy snack. But did you know that munching on almonds can also help ward off infections?
Almonds contain vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and as the nut also contains healthy fats, it helps vitamin E to be absorbed by your body.
Just a half-cup serving (or about 40 almonds) will give you the recommended daily allowance of vitamin E.
Like almonds, sunflower seeds can be a good source of vitamin E, a known infection fighter.
But sunflower seeds also contain the vitamin selenium, which research shows can help your immune system in two ways. First, it triggers your immune system when there’s a risk, but second, it also tells your immune system when to slow down, protecting your body from chronic inflammation.
Foods that boost your immune system the most
As we mentioned, when it comes to eating foods to boost your immune system, there isn’t one miracle food. But eating foods full of vitamins and minerals can help keep you healthy.
Keep in mind that the typical American diet is full of foods that produce inflammation. And when your body has too much inflammation, your immune system struggles. Consider following an anti-inflammatory diet or even the Mediterranean diet, which is based on eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.
“I’m a big fan of the Mediterranean diet,” states Dr. Calabrese. “It’s a great diet for immune health.”
She also recommends reducing saturated fats found in baked goods, full-fat dairy and red meat. You should also avoid trans fat, which is bad for your heart and causes inflammation. Trans fat is typically found in items like cookies and margarine.
“Changing your diet changes isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never get sick,” says Dr. Calabrese. “But it’s a good way to stay healthy and help your immune system fight off viruses and other illnesses.”