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Nutrition for a Healthy Immune System

March 13, 2018 by Catherine Atchison, Registered Dietitian

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Nutrition for a healthy immune system

During cold and flu season, people seem to fall into one of three groups: sick, getting over being sick, and hoping to not get sick again. Currently, I’m in the third group, so everywhere I go, I try to hold my breath in case it helps. That’s not a great long-term strategy. A better long-term strategy is to keep my immune system functioning at its best year round.

A healthy immune system is one more reason to follow an overall healthy lifestyle. A healthy immune system helps reduce the risk of catching the disease-causing organisms that cause infections, colds and flu.

Your immune system is complicated. It includes many types cells and systems that work together to recognize and destroy harmful viruses and bacteria. But like all parts of your body, it can’t do its job best unless you support it by eating well and getting regular physical activity.

How can I strengthen my immune system?

In general, eating healthy foods and meeting nutrient needs supports a healthy immune system. Healthy eating plans like Canada’s Eat Well Plate, the Mediterranean or DASH diet are great examples of nutritious ways to eat and meet your needs. While all nutrients are important for good health, some are known to have specific roles in helping your immune system work.  Nutrients like protein, zinc and vitamins A, C and E are important. Examples of foods that have  these nutrients are:

  • Protein: fish, legumes (beans, peas and lentils), lean meat or poultry, tofu, nuts and seeds, eggs, and milk and milk products
  • Zinc: lean meat and poultry, fish, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds
  • Vitamin A: dark green or orange vegetables, red, yellow and green sweet peppers, sweet potatoes, and winter squash. These are good sources of carotenoids, which our bodies convert to Vitamin A. Preformed vitamin A is found in fatty fish and fortified foods like milk and soy beverage.
  • Vitamin C: kiwis, oranges, red, yellow and green sweet peppers, guava, broccoli, strawberries, and Brussels sprouts
  • Vitamin E: nuts and seeds, nut and seed butters, avocadoes, fish, vegetable oils, and leafy green vegetables

These foods are just examples. Research doesn’t recommend one food over another, but does support including a variety of healthy foods every day.

If you think that your diet isn’t meeting your needs, your health care provider or dietitian may suggest a multivitamin or mineral supplement to help prevent or correct a deficiency. Getting enough vitamins and minerals is important, but it’s also important to know that more is usually not better.

Unless directed by your health care provider, avoid large doses of single vitamin or mineral supplements. For example, having enough zinc in your diet is good for the immune system, but taking large amounts of zinc when you don’t need to can actually lower the immune system.

Another important part of a healthy lifestyle to keep your immune system working its best is regular physical activity. Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines encourage 150 minutes  of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week for adults. Click here to learn more.

If you have questions about food and nutrition, talk to your health care provider or call 8-1-1 and ask to speak to a dietitian. You can also call 8-1-1 and ask to speak to a qualified exercise professional if you have questions about physical activity.

There are so many good reasons to eat a healthy diet and be active. Making it through cold and flu season without getting sick is one more to add to your list!


Related blogs

Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines
Picture of a Balanced Diet
How to Avoid the Flu
Physical Activity can Help During the Cold and Flu Season

Recommended resources

HealthLinkBC: Mediterranean diet
National Heart, Blood, Lung Institute: Dash Diet  
HealthlinkBC: Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Adults

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