Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down, there’s been a strong focus on ways to build up our immune systems. Vaccines are our first-line defense, but folks have also been interested in what supplements, diet, exercise, and other preventative measures can do. Some of it is just hype, but including more nutrient-dense food choices is always smart just to prevent any deficiencies.

Prioritizing nutrition can help us feel good physically and mentally. So, here are some foods that are nutrient-dense and helpful to add to your shopping list to help your body be at its best.

Can certain foods benefit my immune system?

The foods we eat can definitely have positive effects on how we feel and how we contend with things that can make us sick, especially chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease. But it’s important to note that no supplement or diet will cure or prevent diseases, including COVID-19. The best prevention methods are getting vaccinated, good hygiene practices, physical distancing, and isolating when exposed.

Currently, there’s no research that supports using supplements to help protect against COVID-19 specifically, though some early research is exploring which, if any, could be helpful.

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Below are some of the key components to aid in keeping our immune system working well, from a nutrition perspective. Note that this is mostly aiming for a nutritionally-dense diet to help prevent any deficiencies instead of curing diseases.

What it’s good for: Protein aids in healing and recovery, among all kinds of other useful benefits. You definitely need this in amounts right for your body. Check in with your doc or a dietitian to see how much you specifically need.

Good food sources: Lean meats, fish, lentils, eggs, chickpeas, legumes, beans, tofu, and Greek yogurt.

What it’s good for: Vitamin A helps to regulate the immune system and protect against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system healthy.

Good food sources: Sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, and eggs.

What it’s good for: Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps protect you from infections by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity.

Good food sources: Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice/tomatoes, cherries, melons, guava, pineapple, potatoes, and kiwi.

What it’s good for: Vitamin E is another antioxidant, neutralizing free radicals while improving immune function.

Good food sources: Sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils (such as sunflower or safflower oil), hazelnuts, and peanut butter.

What it’s good for: Zinc is necessary to aid those natural barriers in not letting baddies into the body and for a generally good function of the immune system, especially for those prone to infection.

Good food sources: Lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grains, beans, seeds (especially sunflower), and nuts.

What it’s good for: Probiotics are the good bacteria that exist in and on your body that have a huge impact on all kinds of body functions. Your gut microbiome is especially helpful in immune function. in simple terms, prebiotics (note the E in there) are the food that powers the good probiotic bacteria. They work together in tandem to help the body function and can help prevent illness.

Good food sources: Asparagus, bananas, garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichokes (for prebiotics); Greek yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and other fermented foods (for probiotics).

What it’s good for: Vitamin B6 is a micronutrient that is involved in a lot of metabolic processes and, when deficient, could have an impact on the way the immune system responds to illness.

Good food sources: Pistachios, garlic, salmon and tuna, chicken, spinach, cabbage, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, and whole grains.

What it’s good for: DHA, a main omega-3 fatty acid in the brain, promotes the production of a hormone that protects neurons and promotes the birth of new brain cells.

Good food sources: Salmon and other fresh fish, oysters, anchovies, mackerel, and mussels.

  • Sleep. Aim for 6 to 8 hours a night. Snag some tips for good sleep hygiene.
  • De-stress. Practice deep breathing or gentle yoga; try meditation apps, weighted blankets, and aromatherapy (particularly with lavender, eucalyptus, and mint).
  • Avoid excess booze. Alcohol can weaken the immune system and damages epithelial cells in your intestine making it hard to absorb some essential nutrients.
  • Get your body moving. Regular movement and exercise can help promote immune responses. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise 5 times a week, if you can. Check in with your doc to make sure it’s safe for you.

Though we’re all working on finding balance amid the difficult times, being intentional with our meals and activity can be super beneficial. Whatever your days may look like, aim to include nutrient-dense options that both feel and taste good so that it’s sustainable. You should start seeing some benefits and maybe even help prevent that next cold.

Rachel Narr is a dietitian at a major hospital system in New York City covering the psychiatric and neurosurgery units, and part of an eight-person dietitian team. She also owns a virtual private practice, Rachel Naar Nutrition, focusing on the connection between food and mood.