Food and the Immune System – Exploring the Evidence

Food and the Immune System - Exploring the Evidence

Immunity is a hot topic right now, and for good reason. People all over the world are taking every precaution to protect themselves against COVID-19. We’re social distancing, cleaning more, stocking up on shelf-stable ingredients to avoid the grocery stores, and cancelling events. 

As with any highly dangerous and scary health epidemic, it’s easy to fall prey to promises of quick fixes or worse, supplements that wrongfully promise health and protection. 

Here we dig into food and the immune system and explore the most popular myths about immune-boosting foods. 

The idea of boosting your immune system 

Overall, the immune system does an adequate job of protecting us against diseases. Yet, sometimes it fails. Sometimes germs sneak by and make you sick. Other times the immune system continues to fight off fake threats, which can lead to autoimmune disease. 

Is there truth to using specific foods and supplements to boost your immune system? The thought is enticing. But there is still so much researchers don’t know. Plus the research is often conflicting or proven in animals, not humans.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t strengthen our immune system. It just means that our best line of defense against illness is following standard health guidelines. 

The importance of micronutrients for the immune system 

Early in the 1700s, sailors were plagued with scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. The deficiency in vitamin C causes anemia, gum disease, skin problems, fatigue, and can be fatal. This is an example of how clinical deficiencies lead to a break-down in the immune system. 

Clinical vitamin and mineral deficiencies are less common in the United States. We fortify many common foods with these key nutrients. Thus, the real challenge is protecting our immune systems when micronutrient intake is inadequate. 

Getting enough micronutrients, but not an overload

How can you make sure you’re satisfying your micronutrient needs? The most powerful way is to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, lean sources of protein, healthy fats, and whole grains. 

The goal is to meet your needs with your foods on your plate, rather than taking supplements. 

Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Plus, supplements have more than the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for micronutrients. Current research doesn’t prove that consuming more than the RDI actually boosts your immune system. 

Choosing foods that support immune health 

Here are six micronutrients that play a major role in immune health – vitamin A, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. 

Although these nutrients support a functioning immune system, there is no magic food or supplement that automatically keeps you from getting sick. 

It’s more helpful to eat a variety of foods to boost your immune system and maintain overall health. 

Foods to support immune system 

Colorful foods typically suggest they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Look at these foods and see how you can add them to your next meal.

Probiotics and immune health

Probiotics contain live bacteria and yeasts naturally found in your body. They also support your immune function. When you are sick, you have more bad bacteria floating around your body. Probiotics help wipe out the bad bacteria, helping you heal.

Eating foods rich in probiotics can keep a healthy balance of favorable bacteria throughout your body. 

Here are a few suggestions of probiotic-rich foods: 

  • Tempeh 
  • Fermented vegetables 
  • Kefir 
  • Yogurt 
  • Cottage cheese 
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi

Check the package labels of foods to confirm it contains live and active cultures. 

Bottom Line 

When it comes to boosting the immune system, forget taking expensive supplements or doubling up on vitamin C powders. Remember, the immune system is a highly regulated and complex system. The best start to a healthy immune system is to focus on increasing healthy foods.

The information we provide at is not medical advice, nor is it intended to replace a consultation with a medical professional. Please inform your physician of any changes you make to your diet or lifestyle and discuss these changes with them. If you have questions or concerns about any medical conditions you may have, please contact your physician.

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