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Everyday Foods That Support a Healthy Immune System

March 22, 2020

If you’re reading this, you already know how important your food choices are for good health. As Dr. Mark Hyman puts it, “Food is literally the most powerful medicine you have available to control your health.” Luckily, there are many commonly available, delicious foods that you can incorporate today—no matter what your particular taste, eating style, cooking ability or budget—that are specifically powerful for boosting your immune system.

Here are some nutrients to focus on, and the foods in which they’re especially abundant. Of course, it’s important to get as wide a variety of foods onto your plate as possible: eat plenty of vegetables, beneficial fats, and high-quality protein for overall good health.

Vitamin C

Why it’s helpful: Vitamin C is an antioxidant, so it fights free radicals in the body, helping to reduce inflammation. Research suggests vitamin C may help prevent respiratory infections, and aid in treating them when they do occur. A lack of vitamin C is associated with increased risk of illness.

Where you’ll find it: Red bell peppers, citrus, strawberries, spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower

Recipes to try:

  • Protein Power Smoothie: This fast, easy smoothie gets an extra shot of vitamin C from a secret ingredient: Red bell pepper (there are plenty of delicious strawberries in there too).
  • 5 New Ways to Eat Cauliflower for Dinner: At this point, we think cauliflower is just showing off. It can be turned into “rice,” pizza crust, and steak — and one cup of cooked florets contain 90 percent of your daily vitamin C.
  • “Flu Shot”: This juice is an immune-boosting powerhouse, with three different kinds of citrus (grapefruit, blood orange, and lemon). Raw honey, cinnamon, garlic and ginger all pitch in illness-battling properties, and make this elixir bracingly delicious.

Vitamin D

Why it’s helpful: Vitamin D helps regulate the immune system, so the body doesn’t under- or overreact (the latter can lead to autoimmune issues). Lack of vitamin D is also associated with greater risk of infection.

Where you’ll find it: Salmon, sardines, egg yolks, fortified dairy

Recipes to try:

Vitamin A

Why it’s helpful: Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system, so that it operates efficiently. Plus, research suggests vitamin A may help protect children from pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses.

Where you’ll find it: Animal sources such as dairy, fish, and meat, have preformed vitamin A. With plant sources, you eat compounds called carotenoids, which the body converts into vitamin A. Carotenoid-rich foods include carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, spinach, pumpkin, and winter squash.

Recipes to try:

  • Simple Kale and Sweet Potato Salad: It’s easy to make, but loaded with flavor — fresh mint and green apple adding bright, clean flavors. Along with carotenoid-rich sweet potatoes, this dish also contains kale, a good source of vitamin C. Plus, the flavorful dressing is made with tahini, which provides protein and healthy fat. Vitamin A is fat soluble, so you need to eat fat with it in order for your body to absorb it.
  • Curried Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup: Get your double shot of carotenoids in this 100% plant-based soup. It also has garlic, used for centuries as a remedy for various illnesses and a popular cold fighter. The curry powder in the recipe also contains anti-inflammatory turmeric.
  • Garlic Mashed Butternut Squash: Step aside, potatoes: this indulgent-tasting side dish is comfort food that loves you back. Butternut squash is rich in carotenoids, and there’s plenty of garlic for great taste and good health. Serve it alongside fish, chicken, or steak for dinner — or have it with a poached egg on top (bonus vitamin D!) as a healthful savory breakfast.

Fermented foods

Why they’re helpful: Fermented foods contain probiotics, beneficial bacteria that help crowd out bad bacteria in our microbiomes that can cause inflammation and other illnesses. Regularly including fermented foods in your diet helps maintain a healthy gut, the place where much of the immune system lives.

Where you’ll find it: Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and pickles (make sure the label says “raw” or “fermented”), kimchi, miso, apple cider vinegar (must contain the “mother”), kombucha

Recipes to try:

  • 8 New Ways to Eat More Kefir: Kefir, a fermented drink that is similar to yogurt, is a fantastically versatile ingredient. Use it to add tang to salad dressings, smoothies — even tacos.
  • Cold Kimchi Soba Noodles: Kimchi, a Korean fermented cabbage, adds probiotics and tons of great flavor to this fun, veggie-forward noodle dish. Pro tip: In this recipe, some of the brine from the kimchi gets whisked into the dressing. Try this with sauerkraut, fermented pickles and other pickled vegetables.
  • Ranch Dressing with Greek Yogurt and Chia: Toss it into salads, use it as a dip — this easy-to-make DIY ranch is so good, you’ll never buy bottled again.

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