Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Super Foods for a Strong Immune System During Cold and Flu Season

Photo credit: Chris Costes (Flickr)

I firmly believe that one of the first lines of defense against the cold and flu season starts in the grocery cart.  What are you putting in your cart lately?  While many of us are bombarded by a milieu of cold and flu-fighting products this time of year, there's nothing like heading into the season with a well-nourished immune system.  No, that doesn't mean popping megadoses of vitamin C or Airborne when you feel like you're getting a cold.  To bolster your immune system in preparation for the cold and flu season, it's essential to supply your body with a daily dose of the most vital immune-supporting nutrients.  The best source of these key nutrients is going to be food since these nutrients, along with others, will work together to help promote overall health and an optimally functioning immune system.  Here's my top 10 list of super foods for a strong immune system during the cold and flu season.                 

Fish:  Fish, such as salmon and tuna, are excellent sources of vitamin D, which helps regulate the immune system.  In fact, a few recently published studies suggest that vitamin D may play an important role in protecting individuals from viral infections, such as influenza.  While the body is capable of making vitamin D from sun exposure, many adults fall short during the colder months as they spend less time outdoors. There are also few foods that are good sources of vitamin D. Aim for at least two four-ounce servings of fish weekly.

Citrus fruits: Citrus fruits, such as oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines, are chock full of vitamin C, which helps the body resist infections in a variety of ways.  Toss sections of citrus into salad for a refreshing zing.  Citrus salsas pair well with fish, seafood, or chicken.

Sweet potatoes:  These luscious, orange-fleshed tubers are loaded with vitamin A, which keeps the linings of our eyes and intestinal and respiratory tracts healthy. These parts of the body provide one of our first lines of defense against bacteria and viruses by preventing their entry into the body. Sweet potatoes are also a significant source of vitamin C.  Sweet potatoes can be baked, steamed, or pureed, and they also work well in soups or casseroles.

Sunflower seeds:  These crunchy seeds are packed with vitamin E, which influences the cellular activity of the immune system.  Preliminary evidence proposes that vitamin E may enhance immune function in older adults. Sunflower seeds are also teeming with selenium, which plays a multifaceted role in shoring up our immune system.  One report presents evidence that selenium deficiency may even change the structure and function of the cells lining the respiratory tract, making selenium-deficient individuals more susceptible to viral infections.  Toss sunflower seeds into salads or sprinkle them on hot or cold cereals. These also work well in homemade trail mixes, granola, or granola bars.

Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage, are filled with vitamin C.  Many of these veggies, such as broccoli, kale, and bok choy, also contain a bounty of vitamin A.  Some of these vegetables are often a welcome addition to any veggie platter or salad.  They also make nice additions to soups, stews, and casseroles.  Studies suggest consuming at least five servings a week.

Oats: This hardy grain provides an excellent plant-based source of zinc, which is a necessary link for the development and activation of the white blood cells of the immune system.  Researchers also pose that beta glucans found in oats may enhance the body's immune response by increasing its resistance to infections.  Oats are also a good source of selenium.  Enjoy oats for breakfast or even as a snack.  Incorporate oats into homemade granola, granola bars, or pancakes.        

Winter squash: Varieties of winter squash, such as butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, and pumpkin, are heaping with immune-strengthening vitamin A and vitamin C.  In season from October through December, winter squashes are excellent when baked, sauteed, or steamed.  The cooked squash can be pureed and combined with seasonal herbs and spices.  They also work well in casseroles, soups, and mixed with grains, such as quinoa.
Bell peppers: Green, yellow, orange, or red sweet bell peppers all contain a favorable amount of vitamin C.  The red and orange varieties are also significant sources of vitamin A.  Enjoy them as a fresh, crunchy snack or tossed into salads.  These versatile veggies are also a nice addition to a variety of dishes from salsas to soups or serve them stuffed with other veggies, seasonings, and whole grains.

Dried beans:  Dried beans, such as black beans, navy beans, or pinto beans, are rich in plant-based iron, which is critical to the proper functioning of the immune system.  A deficiency in iron can lead to a suppressed immune system and increased risk for infections.  Consuming beans with vitamin C-rich foods will enhance the absorption of iron from the beans.  Beans are a perfect protein-packed component of salads, pasta or grain dishes, soups, chilis, and dips.  Aim for at least 3 cups a week.

Dark leafy green vegetables: Dark leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, or bok choy, are brimming with immunoprotective vitamin A and C.  Some dark leafy greens, such as spinach, are also great plant-based sources of iron.  Pairing these veggies with vitamin C-rich foods will enhance iron absorption.  Dark leafy green vegetables can be prepared and served in a variety of ways, cooked or raw.  Explore and aim for at least 3 cups a week!

What are your favorite immune-boosting foods?

Here are some links to previous blog posts about common cold and flu remedies:


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