For the last few years, we’ve had to focus on building up our immune system to help fight against COVID-19. Unfortunately, experts are warning that COVID isn’t the only illness we need to be cautious of this year. The New York Times recently released an article about what medical professionals are calling the “tridemic,” which is a new term that stems from an increase in flu cases this season, an increase in RSV cases in pediatric hospitals this year, and a still ever-present COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of this triple threat to our health this winter, experts are suggesting people buckle down on trying to build their immunity however they can. While the state of a person’s immunity depends on many factors, some of which are uncontrollable, one way we can focus on a better immune system is by incorporating immune-boosting eating habits into our daily diet.
“If you are looking to keep your immune system strong against colds, germs, and other illnesses, fill up on whole foods like colorful produce, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and whole grains,” says Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, author of The Sports Nutrition Playbook and member of our Expert Medical Board. “These foods are packed with nutrients to help your body stay strong and fight off what comes its way.”
Read on to learn about more specific eating habits you can adopt today to help you fight against the anticipated tridemic.
Fill up on antioxidants
One of the best ways to “eat” your way to better immunity is by incorporating more antioxidants into your daily diet.
“Antioxidants like flavonoids, anthocyanins, and carotenoids help fight free radicals (aka the bad guys) that can potentially cause damage to your cells and compromise your immune system,” says Goodson. “And luckily, these nutrients are found in all of your colorful produce.” If you’re curious about getting more of these antioxidants into your daily routine, Goodson has some easy tips on common foods to try.
“Flavonoids are found in berries, kale, cabbage, dark chocolate, tea, and soybeans. Anthocyanins (a type of flavonoid) are naturally produced pigments that give flowers their red, purple, and blue color, so think berries, grapes, pomegranates, and even red wine. And carotenoids are found in orange, yellow, and red produce like summer squash, pumpkin, mango, and apricots,” says Goodson.
Eat vitamin C-rich foods
Vitamin c is a specific antioxidant that is known to help keep your immune system strong and help your body fight against illness. You can supplement this vitamin, but Goodson recommends getting it through your food if you can.
“While you might think of oranges and orange juice—which are high in vitamin C, you can also get vitamin C from tomatoes and tomato juice, red bell peppers, other citrus fruits like strawberries, and green vegetables like spinach and green beans.”
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Eat foods high in zinc
People often associate vitamin C with immunity, but “zinc is a powerful mineral that also helps maintain a strong immune system,” says Goodson. And similar to many other vitamins and minerals, you can take supplements of zinc if you need. However, incorporating more zinc into your diet through the food you eat is more simple than you may think.
“Beef is considered an excellent source of zinc, providing almost half of what you need in a day,” says Goodson. “So, choosing a lean cut of red meat at a meal can help you fill up on this vital nutrient.” If you don’t like red meat, you can also get zinc through “legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy foods, and even dark chocolate.”
Drink more smoothies
Fruit and vegetables provide your body with important nutrients and antioxidants, but it can sometimes be difficult to get enough servings throughout the day. One solution for this is making a smoothie loaded with fruit and veggies.
“A smoothie packed with antioxidants and immune boosting ingredients is an excellent way to prepare your body against the impending tridemic, and they are a great way to get these nutrients for your children to protect against RSV, as well” says Trista Best, MPH, RD, LD, at Balance One Supplements. “Some ingredients to consider include blueberries, spinach, papayas, flaxseed, kale, mango, and ginger. Consider a base of vitamin C-rich natural orange juice or kefir for probiotics.”
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Snack on nuts and seeds
Eating immune-boosting food at various mealtimes is beneficial, but what about your snacks in between these meals?
“Immune enhancing snacks are an excellent way to integrate nutrients that protect against illness. So trade out your usual chips or popcorn for nuts and seeds,” says Best. “Nuts like almonds and walnuts, or seeds like sunflower and pumpkin, contain many vitamins and minerals that aid in regulating and supporting the immune system. These nutrients include B6, phosphorus, selenium, and magnesium, along with healthy fats that help lower inflammation that otherwise can interfere with immune function.”
Enjoy some fermented foods
And last but certainly not least, eating a healthy dose of fermented foods can “provide probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria, that support immune function,” says Best. “Probiotics can help immunity by secreting substances that trigger the immune system to react more strongly, thereby preventing pathogens from being able to take root and cause illness.”
If you’re looking for yummy probiotic-rich foods, Best suggests yogurt with live active cultures, cheeses like gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, apple cider vinegar, miso, and kimchi.