Getting sick is the worst—especially during the holidays when your schedule is packed with parties, travel plans, and delicious food. You may load up on hand sanitizer, log eight hours of sleep every night, and fit in a great workout. But it’s important to remember that a nutrient-rich diet helps keep your immune system in tip-top shape, too.
Below, our experts answer the four most common questions they receive about how to choose the best immune system-boosting foods, so you can stay healthy and energized.
Can certain foods really boost immunity?
Yes and no. Researchers are still exploring how diet, exercise, age, and stress can impact the immune system. There isn’t necessarily a direct link between lifestyle and immunity. However, a healthy lifestyle certainly helps with wellness. What you eat functions as a piece of that puzzle.
“Whole plant foods—including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes—are packed with nutrients that help keep our immune systems healthy,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Taylor Wolfram of Whole Green Wellness. “These include vitamins A, C, and E; B vitamins; zinc; selenium; and iron. When we base the majority of our diets on these foods, we’re helping all of our bodily functions, not just our immune systems, function at peak performance.”
What are the best immune-boosting foods?
“Dark leafy greens are vital for our health overall. [They’re] packed with vitamins, nutrients, and minerals that our bodies need to ‘crowd out’ the bad. Whether that is to prevent illness [or] disease or even to balance out unhealthy foods,” says Aaptiv trainer Kelly Chase. “Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory, which helps to fight colds and flu, aids in digestion, and helps with nausea.”
Jennifer Giamo, an Aaptiv trainer specializing in high-intensity interval training, says she prefers whole fruit such as apples, blueberries, strawberries, and mango. They provide a boost when her blood sugar is low and serves as the ideal pre- and post-workout snack.
Wolfram says, “I also like to eat foods that contain probiotics, which help keep our gut microbiomes in balance.” She recommends plant-based yogurts and sauerkraut. Other good options include fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon), turmeric, beans, sweet potatoes, broccoli, oats, mushrooms, almonds, citrus, and bell peppers.
Will my workouts improve?
“Absolutely. Eating nutrient-dense foods, in general, provides for higher energy levels, mental clarity, better performance, and an overall healthy feeling,” Chase says.
Giamo adds, “I can definitely see a difference in my endurance level. It gives me that push to go a little bit longer and stay focused. The extra energy is great, especially when you’re not feeling like working out.”
How else can I avoid getting sick?
Wolfram says that balance is key if you want to maintain sustainable habits and healthy immunity. “Dieting and overexercising can run us down and negatively impact the immune system,” she says. “Use mindful eating techniques to enjoy a variety of healthful and satiating foods. Listen to your body. Move it in ways that bring you enjoyment, not in ways that feel like punishment. Finally, adequate hydration and sleep go a long way in keeping the immune system healthy as well.”