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Eat the right foods to support your immune system

nutIt’s a new year and many are still clinging to resolutions to eat healthfully. Cold and flu season is the most important time of year to eat for good health. Consuming foods that boost your immune system is the key to fighting illness.

  • Emphasize protein. Consuming foods high in protein with every meal and snack enhances the body’s ability to heal, which can halt the progression of infection. Good sources of protein include eggs, lean meats, beans, dairy products and nuts.
  • Include vitamin A to promote healing, it’s essential for the growth and development of cells. When looking for fruits and vegetables that contain vitamin A, think of the color orange and you can’t go wrong: Sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, mango, apricots and papaya are all good choices. Other sources include milk, eggs, fortified cereals and green leafy vegetables. Adequate vitamin A is easy to get in your diet, so supplementation is generally not necessary. When you’re sick, simply increase your intake of these vitamin A–rich foods.
  • Opt for Omega-3s. This heart-healthy fat enhances your immune system and combats inflammation. Look for EPA and DHA sources from fatty fish such as salmon and tuna. ALA is an omega-3 fat found in flaxseeds and walnuts. It is still beneficial but not as efficiently absorbed by the body as the sources found in fish. If you’re not a fan of fish, supplementation will suffice: 1,000 to 2,000 milligrams per day, taken with meals. My personal favorite is Ultimate Omega, available at Whole Foods Market, GNC and other health food stores.
  • Choose vitamin C–rich foods to support a healthy immune system. Food sources include citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, cabbage, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower. For the best absorption, take 500 milligrams twice a day. As an added bonus, if you are iron deficient, vitamin C will help the body better absorb iron.
  • Get daily D in your diet. Recent studies show that in addition to bone health, vitamin D also boosts the immune system. The best food sources of vitamin D include salmon, tuna and sardines. Ten minutes of sunlight per day (without sunscreen) provides all the vitamin D your body needs. If you’re concerned about skin cancer, particularly on the face, exposure of arms and legs is sufficient. Vitamin D is not as easily accessible in foods, so supplementation can be taken at about 400 International Units daily.
  • Select foods high in zinc. This mineral maintains a healthy immune system and aids with healing. Zinc is found in a lot of protein-rich foods. The best sources are beef, lamb, pork and chicken. Other non-meat sources of zinc are beans, peanuts and pumpkin seeds.
  • Get an array of fruits and vegetables. Choose brightly colored produce to provide the most powerful antioxidants that fight cell damage.
  • Cut out refined sugar. Excessive sugar spikes blood sugar levels, increasing inflammation and cell damage. Eliminate refined sugar and you will have a healthier immune system and more energy.
  • Sip green tea. The antioxidants protect cells from toxins in the environment. Add lemon, which maintains the acid-base balance within the body. Maintaining a healthy pH level supports healthy bacteria.
  • Beware of supplements that make health claims. They are not regulated by the FDA and provide limited scientific evidence to back such claims. Save your money and instead choose nourishing foods to support a balanced diet—the only proven method for maintaining a healthy body.