How to Eat Your Way to a Better Immune System
Updated: Jun 27
Our body is brilliant at keeping us healthy and vital - if we look after it. When our immune cells have the nutrients they need, they rally together to defend us against disease-causing germs.
We need to nourish our in-built warriors with micronutrients for a crisp and efficient immune system that functions optimally. The occasional kale smoothie and turmeric shot aren’t going to cut it: what we need is a sustained approach to supporting our immune systems, with vitamins and minerals found in foods and, if necessary, in supplements.
We know we need to eat real food, mostly plants, and pass on the processed foods, refined carbs and sugar. But which vitamins and minerals might help boost the immune system over time? And what are the foods we should be investing in, for the long term, to support our health?
Immune cells appear to need vitamins C, D, and E, and zinc, for the whole immune system to function normally and give our bodies the arsenal it needs to fight off germs. I spoke to nutritional therapist Jodie Brandman, who highlighted some of her favourite foods that are hailed with promoting good health: “If we put the right fuel in our bodies then they will thank us in the long term! Eating well is one of the biggest things we can do to take back some control of our health.” These wonder foods are listed below, along with the lowdown on what these nutrients do for our immune system, and the recommended daily dose (or nutritional reference value, NRV). It’s never too late to start eating for immunity.
Vitamin C is the one we all think about when we get a cold. It’s an essential vitamin – also called ascorbic acid - that our bodies can’t produce but is thought to have impressive health benefits: 1. It helps with the production and function of white blood cells that attack infection 2. It’s a powerful antioxidant that protects cells from toxic by-products that immune cells produce when destroying pathogens. 3. It acts as an antioxidant for the skin, strengthening the skin’s defence system.
For foods high in vitamin C, you should eat: citrus and soft fruits (oranges, strawberries, kiwi fruit, papaya, pineapple, blackcurrants) and vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, bell peppers and potatoes)
How much vitamin C is in an orange? Around 100mg – 130% of the daily recommended intake.
Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” because your body naturally produces it when directly exposed to sunlight. If we don’t have access to frequent, direct sunlight we need to ensure we have adequate levels of vitamin D in our blood by eating certain foods and taking supplements. Vitamin D stimulates our immune system to increase the number and activity of cells that fight infection.
NRV: 10mcg for adults and children over the age of one.
For foods high in vitamin D, you should eat: egg yolks, mushrooms, and oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel)
How much vitamin D is in egg yolk? 1.1mcg – 10% of the recommended daily intake.
Vitamin E helps with immune cell function because it acts as an antioxidant, helping to neutralise potentially damaging free radicals in the body and protect immune cells from damage.
For foods high in vitamin E, you should eat: nuts and seeds, olive oil, avocados, muesli, leafy green vegetables, wholemeal bread, and egg yolks.
How much vitamin E is in a whole avocado? 4.16mg – 35% of the recommended daily intake.
Zinc optimises our response to infections and activates enzymes that break down proteins in viruses and bacteria. Zinc is essential to aid the growth and development of immune cells – without it, cells can malfunction – and it’s also an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
For foods high in zinc, you should eat: shellfish, pumpkin seeds, liver, red meat, egg yolks, wholegrain cereals and pulses, and dark chocolate.
How much zinc is in 20g of dark chocolate? 0.66mg – 6.6% of the daily recommended intake.