According to the CDC, January and February are the peak months of flu activity. The best defense against the flu is a year-round offense including eating right, staying active, getting enough rest and minimizing stress. However, 13 immune enhancing nutrients found in food are a good idea too.
“A strong immune system doesn’t guarantee your body can fight off every flu bug, but it is a powerful defense,” said registered dietitian and Academy spokesperson Heather Mangieri. “Good nutrition is essential to a strong immune response.”
“A relatively mild deficiency of even one nutrient may make a difference in your body’s ability to fight infection,” she said.
Mangieri recommends working with a registered dietitian to get the nutrition needed for a healthy defense, starting with an eating plan full of nutrients well-recognized for their roles in building a person’s immunity:
Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Beta carotene in deep-yellow fruits and veggies and dark-green leafy greens enhances cell-mediated immune responses, sending good cells out to mount an immune response.
Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects you from infections by keeping skin and tissues in your mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory healthy. Get this immune-boosting vitamin from sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, milk, eggs or foods labeled vitamin-A fortified, such as milk or cereal.
Vitamin C in berries, citrus fruit and melon protects you from infection by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity. Include more of this healthy vitamin in your diet with citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice or foods fortified with vitamin C, such as some cereals.
Vitamin E in wheat germ and nuts works as an antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals and may improve immune function. Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified foods, sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower or safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter or spinach.
Zinc helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. Zinc can be found in lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.
Other nutrients including vitamin B6 in whole grains, legumes, chicken and pork; folate; selenium in meat and seafood; iron and copper, as well as prebiotics and probiotics influence immune response also.
“A registered dietitian can help ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to function and protect itself,” Mangieri said. “An RD can also build an eating plan that works for your unique nutritional needs and lifestyle.”
Beyond the flu, a healthy immune response may offer protection from other health problems, including arthritis, allergies, abnormal cell development and cancers.