By now, you have probably read the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Carolina Meadows on how to protect yourself from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). These include washing your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; not touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; and avoiding close contact with people who are sick. These preventative measures can help reduce your risk for contracting this contagious virus. However, your diet can also play a vital role in keeping your immune system robust and enhancing your body’s natural defenses.
The first way in which you can improve the function of your immune system is through consuming a variety of foods, especially fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins and minerals. Foods that are high in vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as iron and zinc are especially beneficial as these vitamins and minerals are involved in the proper functioning of your immune system. Additionally, the foods you eat have an impact on the inflammation within your body. Inflammation is a defense mechanism that recognizes damaged cells, irritants, and pathogens, and elicits a healing response in order to remove harmful agents from the body. When your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, your cortisol levels increase and remain high, which in turn suppresses your immune system. For this reason, it’s important to focus on consuming anti-inflammatory foods. Finally, everything that we eat eventually finds its way to our gut, and different foods will have a positive or negative effect on the bacteria that live there. Foods that contain fiber or pre- and probiotics can be helpful in maintaining healthy gut bacteria.
Because food plays such an important role in supporting our immune system, we are sharing some foods that are particularly immune-boosting and how they can be incorporated your diet.
Vitamins C and E are particularly important for our immunity because they help destroy free radicals that harm our cells. These vitamins also support our body’s response to pathogens. Vitamin C is found in foods such as red bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, and mangoes. Consuming foods such as almonds, sunflower seeds, spinach, and broccoli ensure that you are getting an adequate amount of vitamin E in your diet.
Beta-carotene is another powerful antioxidant that can reduce inflammation and improve your immune system through increasing the number of disease-fighting cells in the body. Beta-carotene is converted into vitamin A in your body, so it is an important supply of this vitamin. Sources of beta-carotene include sweet potatoes, carrots, and green leafy vegetables.
Finally, zinc is a mineral that can help boost white blood cells in your body, which defend against invading pathogens. To increase the amount of zinc in your diet, try eating more nuts, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, beans, lentils, and shellfish.
In addition to these food sources, eating yogurt is also beneficial in stimulating your immune system because the cultures within it help fight diseases. Yogurt is also a great source of vitamin D, which regulates the immune system and is thought to boost your body’s natural defenses against diseases. Be sure to look for yogurts that have “live and active cultures” printed on the label and brands that have been fortified with vitamin D.
Other ways to prevent illness
Try to incorporate a variety of foods into your diet, including the ones mentioned above. Eating only one of these foods is not enough to fight viruses, bacteria, and pathogens. Building your immune system relies on many vitamins and minerals consumed consistently (but not in excess) over a long period of time.
Sources: https://www.livestrong.com/article/13725146-immune-boosting-foods-swaps/, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248423, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/252758, https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/foods-that-boost-the-immune-system#yogurt, https://www.pcrm.org/news/blog/foods-boost-immune-system,
Important Foods for Immune Support
Fruits: Citrus fruits, strawberries, mangoes
Vegetables: Red bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, sweet potatoes, carrots, and green leafy vegetables
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and pistachios
Legumes: Beans and lentils
Fish: Shellfish and salmon
Recipes for Immune System-Boosting Snacks and Meals (See Below)
- Yogurt Parfait
- Trail Mix
- Sweet Potato Fajitas
- Lentil Soup
- Make a crudité plate of sliced red bell peppers, broccoli florets, carrots, and hummus for dipping
- Make a spinach salad and top with your favorite veggies and a ¼ cup of either almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds or pistachios
- Keep almonds or pistachios on hand for a health snack
- Incorporate shellfish or salmon into your meals at least once per week
1 cup Greek yogurt (vanilla or plain)
¼ cup strawberries, sliced
¼ cup mangoes, chopped
¼ cup granola with almonds (optional)
- Layer ½ cup Greek yogurt, half of the strawberries, mangoes, and granola.
- Repeat layers.
1 cup raw seeds, i.e. sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, or sesame seeds
1 cup unsweetened, unsulfured dried fruit
Optional: 1 cup popped popcorn, ½ cup chopped dark chocolate, or 1 cup pretzels
Spices, i.e. ¼ tsp. iodized salt, ½ tsp. cinnamon, or pinch of nutmeg
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix well.
- Store in a Ziploc bag, airtight container, or mason jar.
- Will keep for up to 1 month.
Sweet Potato Fajitas
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. ground cumin
½ tsp. smoked paprika
2 pinches ground cayenne pepper
1 large sweet potato (about 1 lb.)
8-10 small flour or corn tortillas
2 medium red bell peppers
1 medium sweet or yellow onion
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
Finely grated zest of 1 medium lime
Juice of 1 medium lime, divided
Salsa, guacamole, lime wedges
- Make the fajitas: Arrange 1 rack in the middle of the oven and 1 rack below it, then heat to 475° Stir the oil, garlic, salt, cumin, paprika, and cayenne together in a small bowl. Transfer 2 teaspoons of it to a large bowl and set both aside.
- Peel the sweet potato and cut in half crosswise. Cut the pieces lengthwise into ½-inch-wide slices. Cut the slices lengthwise into ½-inch-wide planks or batons (they should look a bit like steak fries). Place the planks in the large bowl and toss to coat in the spiced oil. Transfer to a rimmed baking sheet and spread into an even layer (save the bowl; no need to wash it). Roast on the middle rack for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, prep the tortillas and vegetables.
- Stack the tortillas on a large sheet of aluminum foil and wrap completely in the foil; set aside. Core, seed, and thinly slice the bell peppers, and add to the now-empty sweet potato bowl. Thinly slice the onion and add to the bowl. Drizzle with the reserved remaining spiced oil and toss to combine.
- Carefully remove the hot baking sheet from the oven, flip the sweet potatoes, and then push them to one half of the baking sheet. Add the bell peppers and onions to the other half of the baking sheet and spread into an even layer. Place the baking sheet back on the middle rack and place the foil-wrapped tortillas on the lower rack. Roast until sweet potatoes are tender, 12 to 15 minutes more. Meanwhile, make the crema.
- Make the crema: Place the Greek yogurt, lime zest, and 2 teaspoons of the lime juice in a small bowl, season with salt, and stir to continue.
- When the vegetables are ready, drizzle with the remaining lime juice, toss to combine, and transfer to a serving bowl. Serve with the warmed tortillas, lime crema, and toppings.
Make ahead: The crema can be made and stored in the refrigerator up to 2 days ahead.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, pressed or minced
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. curry powder
½ tsp. dried thyme
1 large can (28 oz.) diced tomatoes, lightly drained
1 cup brown or green lentils, picked over and rinsed
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cups water
1 tsp. salt, more to taste
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 cup chopped fresh collard greens or kale, tough ribs removed
1 to 2 Tbsp. lemon juice (1/2 to 1 medium lemon), to taste
- Warm the olive oil in a large Dutch oven or pot over medium heat.
- Once the oil is shimmering, add the chopped onion and carrot and cook, stirring often, until the onion has softened and is turning translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, cumin, curry powder, and thyme. Cook until fragrant while stirring occasionally, about 30 seconds. Pour in the drained diced tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, stirring often, in order to enhance their flavor.
- Pour in the lentils, broth, and the water. Add 1 tsp. of salt and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Seasons generously with freshly ground black pepper. Raise heat and bring the mixture to a boil, then partially cover the pot and reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the lentils are tender, but still hold their shape.
- Transfer 2 cups of the soup to a blender. Securely fasten the lid, protect your hand from steam with a tea towel placed over the lid, and puree the soup until smooth. Pour the pureed soup back into the pot.
- Add the chopped greens and cook for 5 minutes, or until the greens have softened to your liking. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in 1 Tbsp. of lemon juice until the flavors really sing. For spicier soup, add another pinch or two of red pepper flakes.
- Serve while hot. Leftovers will keep well for about 4 days in the refrigerator, or can be frozen for several months (just defrost before serving).