Best Immunity-Supporting Foods You Already Have in Your Pantry and Fridge
These days, most everyone is trying to make sure they're as healthy as can be. While there's no magic food that can "boost" your immunity, nutrition experts say what you eat matters.
"Your diet can either promote health, or it can contribute to poor health outcomes," says Alison Brown, a nutrition researcher and chair of the National Organization of Blacks in Dietetics and Nutrition.
The immune system is complex, and eating a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, grains, and lean proteins gives it crucial nutrients Vitamins A, C, D, E, and minerals like folate, calcium, selenium, and zinc.
"A healthy diet, along with other things like sleep and stress management, helps contribute to that robust immune system," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic.
Getting your Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) is easier than you think since these nutrients are in many of the foods in your freezer and pantry.
They're a mainstay in the diet of the Okinawans, who are renowned for longevity. The Center for Science in the Public Interest named the sweet potato the world's healthiest vegetable. Just a cup of sweet potato with the skin deliciously delivers many times the vitamin C and three times the vitamin A you need in a day. Vitamin A helps reduce inflammation, regulates immune response, and helps prevent infection, especially in children. Vitamin C does many things, including supporting the lymphocytes, cells that search out and destroy harmful bacteria in the body.
Related: Sweet Potato Recipes
Fatty canned fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel are top-notch sources of vitamins and minerals, says Michele D. Lites, a registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento. Three ounces of canned salmon deliver almost all of your daily vitamin D, and 51 percent of your selenium. A three-ounce serving of tuna has all the selenium you need, and an abundance of zinc. Besides tuna casserole and tuna salad, Lites says she grew up in New Orleans eating salmon cakes that are called croquettes in the South and cod cakes held together with mashed potatoes. Selenium enhances immune response and reduces inflammation by lowering oxidative stress.
Related: Canned Salmon Recipes
Peanut butter is in nearly every pantry, and it's packed with micronutrients, including potassium and magnesium. Just a couple tablespoons of peanut butter deliver many times the zinc you need in a day. Blend it into peanut butter banana smoothies or Thai peanut sauce. Just watch the sugar content, since sugar is inflammatory and doesn't do your body any favors nutritionally.
Related: Peanut Butter Recipes
Remember that ad campaign "the incredible, edible egg?" It wasn't an exaggeration. One egg with both yolk and white is a perfect source of healthy fats and protein, plus 10 percent of your Vitamin A, a quarter of your selenium, and all the zinc you need in a day. "Eggs have been villainized for cholesterol, but they can be part of a balanced diet," says Lites. She suggests whipping up fresh mayonnaise, Scotch eggs, or veggie frittatas.
Popeye wasn't kidding about spinach. Even from a can or freezer, a half cup of the dark leafy green supplies a 14 milligrams of Vitamin C — that's 190 times the RDA — along with more than half of your vitamin A and a quarter of your folate needs. The soft texture makes it ideal for spicy spinach dip and spinach quiche and steakhouse favorite creamed spinach.
Thaw out that bag of broccoli chilling in the freezer stat and make a cheesy broccoli casserole. Just a half cup covers almost all your daily needs for both vitamins A and C. Broccoli is also rich in zinc, which is vital for balancing the immune response and preventing inflammation while the body is fighting off infection.
Most of us have a couple of bags of lentils lurking in the back of the pantry. Dig them out, and you'll have a great source of folate and fiber, says Kirkpatrick. One cup of versatile green lentils has 92 micrograms of folate, a quarter of the RDA for this a B vitamin that supports immune function and well as mood. And like beans, lentils are rich in fiber, which your colon needs to keep things moving.
There's nothing like biting into a juicy, fresh strawberry, but frozen berries capture the same amount of vitamins. A cup of strawberries has 91 milligrams of vitamin C — so you're set for the day many times over.
Black beans are versatile, and they pack more than half your daily folate, and a good dose of fiber. "There are a lot of terrific chilies out there that are vegetarian or use lots of tomatoes, tons of legumes and vegetables," says Dr. Timothy S. Harlan of the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Science. "The majority of what goes into those can come out of the pantry or freezer."
Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt help keep the gut microbiome, the collection of beneficial bacteria living in the intestines, balanced, and well-fed. We're just beginning to understand how important this intestinal balance is for wellness. "Good food diversity and colorful plants is going to be a key factor to a healthy gut," says Kirkpatrick.