Fall is officially right around the corner! The school season restarts and the weather gets increasingly cooler, prompting us to spend more time indoors. This also leads to an increase in various illnesses such as colds, the flu, and, regrettably, COVID, which has seen a rise in infection rates this past August. It’s important to prioritize immune-boosting measures to stay healthy during this season.
What are Immune-Boosting Foods?
One of the best ways to keep yourself protected is ensuring that your immune system is in tip-top condition by incorporating nutrient-rich ingredients in the food you eat. Also known as “immune-boosting foods,” these ingredients contain certain constituents that are known to stimulate or strengthen our immune system’s function in one way or another, explains holistic registered dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. “For example, we know that vitamin C helps support better immune function by increasing the production of certain types of white blood cells, as well as by enhancing the immune system’s natural ability to fight pathogens because of its antioxidant activity,” she says. “Echinacea is another immunity boosting ingredient because it has been clinically shown to increase or ‘upregulate’ the production of white blood cells in the body.”
Coupled with good quality and quantity of sleep, stress management techniques like yoga or meditation and physical activity, incorporating immune-boosting ingredients in your fall meals can reduce your risk of getting sick, notes Emma Laing, Ph.D., R.D.N., director of dietetics at the University of Georgia and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “While full protection from illness caused by bacteria, viruses, and other factors is not possible, consuming a variety of nutritious foods that decrease inflammation and increase antioxidant activity can benefit our immune response,” she says.
If you’re looking to boost your immunity with food, here’s what you should be incorporating into your meals this fall, according to nutrition pros.
One of the best-known immunity booster foods are the citrus fruits like oranges, clementines, grapefruits, lemons, and limes. All are loaded with vitamin C, which is a well-known antioxidant. “Vitamin C is helpful in wound healing and repairing tissues throughout the body to enhance the immune system’s defense against infectious diseases, and it also plays a role in the production of white blood cells that help fight infections,” explains Dr. Laing. “Citrus fruits can be eaten on their own or as part of a salad, baked dessert, jam, freshly squeezed juice or added to many dishes including fish, chicken, and roasted potatoes.”
No surprise here—leafy greens like spinach, kale and romaine are loaded with antioxidants like A, C, and E, as well as iron, a mineral that’s vital for immune function. “Iron helps to carry oxygen to cells, and if a person does not have enough iron stores in the body, such as with iron deficiency anemia, they can become more susceptible to illness,” says Dr. Laing. “The iron from plant sources is not as easily absorbed as the iron from meat sources; however, one tactic to improve iron absorption in the body is to include vitamin C in meal preparation.”
Dr. Laing recommends pairing leafy greens with vitamin C-rich foods like lemon to help increase the body’s absorption of iron. “Leafy greens can be incorporated into cooked recipes, such as omelets, served raw as part of a salad or burrito, or added to smoothies,” she adds.
Wild sockeye salmon
While all salmon is a great source of healthy fats like vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids, the best variety for optimal immune health is wild sockeye salmon, according to Largemen-Roth. “Wild sockeye salmon has the highest vitamin D content of all salmon species, providing more than your recommended daily intake in one serving,” she says. “It also provides vitamin A, omega-3s DHA and EPA, potassium and other important vitamins and nutrients that all work together to help with immune function (not to mention cardiovascular and brain health).”
To serve up wild sockeye salmon, just drizzle it with a little olive oil, a squeeze of lemon and roast it in the oven for 15-20 minutes.
Eggs are excellent sources of choline, a nutrient than as many as 90 percent of Americans aren’t getting their fair share of, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients. Choline is especially important for babies and children, as it helps bolster the brain and nervous system. Eggs also contain vitamin D, B vitamins, and zinc. “Vitamin D is essential for helping your body fight off bacteria and viruses,” explains Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D.N., nutrition expert and author of Everyday Snack Tray. “Energy, brain health and cell metabolism are all affected by low vitamin B levels, so keep them up with a few servings of eggs each week.”
Yogurt is loaded with probiotics, also known as the “good” gut bacteria that helps promote healthy digestion and overall immune health. Yogurt is also a good source of vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, which more than 40 percent of Americans are running low on, per research published in the journal Nutrition Research. “A cup of yogurt can be enjoyed on its own as a frozen or refrigerated treat or it can be enhanced with toppings like granola or fruit,” says Dr. Laing. “Yogurt is also popularly consumed as an ingredient in smoothies, parfaits, soups, sauces, and dips.”
If you’re a big fan of the taste of garlic, you’ll be happy to know it works hard to keep your immune system in fighting condition. How? “Garlic is an antiviral that contains the enzyme alliinase, which produces an immune-boosting sulfur compound that is triggered by cutting or crushing and best consumed raw,” says Marissa Meshulam, NYC-based dietitian and founder of mpm nutrition. Research, including one study published in the Journal of Immunology Research has shown that garlic can actually boost your body’s production of white blood cells, which help your body fight illnesses. You can add garlic to just about anything! Stir-fries, pasta dishes, roasted vegetables, soups and mashed potatoes for added flavor.
These tasty and tart little berries reach their peak of color in the fall season and are rich in a type of antioxidant known as polyphenol, which can help bolster your immune system. One study, published in Nutrition Journal, found that people who drank a cranberry beverage for just 10 weeks experienced an increase in the production of white blood cells. These impressive results, Volpe explains, are most likely attributed to the polyphenols and pigmented anthocyanins found in cranberries. “Adding fresh cranberries into homemade muffins or pancakes would be a tasty seasonal alternative to blueberry muffins or blueberry pancakes,” she says. “Unsweetened dried cranberries can make a nice addition to oatmeal or granola as well as chicken salad, tuna salad, or regular salads.”
Almonds are one of the most popular nuts—and for good reason. Not only do they have a nice, mild flavor, but they offer up an excellent dose of vitamin E, a fat-soluble vitamin responsible for protecting cells against free radical damage, boosting white blood cell counts and warding off blood clots. You can add almonds to almost any meal. Tansy Rodgers, F.N.T.P., functional nutritional therapy practitioner, loves substituting almonds to meals that call for other nuts when she’s seeking a boost in nutrients. “You can add them to cereals, salads, casseroles, or even grind them up to use in a ‘breading’ to coat baked foods like chicken or roasted vegetables,” she adds.
Also known as the “golden spice” for its vibrant yellow color. Turmeric is one of the most studied anti-inflammatory herbs known to increase our immune system. The key is in its active ingredient, curcumin, explains Meshulam. One of the best ways to eat turmeric is with black pepper, as research published in the peer-reviewed journal Planta Medica has found that it can help improve absorption of curcumin by as much as 2,000 percent. Meshulam recommends making turmeric-roasted carrots or simply adding it to scrambled eggs.