Eating Your Way to Better Immune Function

Happy family in the kitchen having fun and cooking together. Healthy food at home.

As a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, I am thrilled that the United Nations has declared 2021 the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables. This announcement presents us with an opportunity to talk about the immune-boosting powers of these plant powerhouses. Now, more than ever, it is essential to take all the steps we can to support and protect our immune function. Choosing immune-boosting foods for ourselves and our families is one of the best ways to approach supporting our immune system from both a physical and mental/emotional standpoint.

Coaching others about nutrition and how to make better food choices is my passion and collaborating with other “foodies” is one of the perks I love most about being in a field that honors healthy living.

For this article, I collaborated with Chef Mareya Ibrahim, America’s “Fit Foodie” and best-selling author of Eat Like You Give A Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive to share both of our passions for healthy eating. Together we explored questions about how to make the most of our food choices when it comes to keeping our immune system in optimal condition. We both agreed that in order to sustain a healthy eating plan, it has to satisfy all family members, including cost-conscious parents, finicky kids, and people with health issues.

Before we get to the thoughts and questions we discussed, here’s a quick rundown of some of the nutrients that support, and promote, a healthy immune system and the foods you can find them in.

Close Up Of Man Eating Healthy Breakfast Of Granola In Cafe

Which nutrients enhance the immune system?

  • Vitamin C: A potent antioxidant that also helps stimulate the formation of antibodies. Among the best sources are tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, citrus fruits, papaya, guava, and Brussel sprouts.
  • Vitamin A: This vitamin assists with respiratory function and intestinal health. Great sources are carrots, broccoli, red bell peppers, cantaloupe, spinach, and sweet potatoes.
  • Fiber: Soluble fiber has been shown to strengthen the immune system. Good produce sources include apples, strawberries, oranges and other citrus, and carrots. Lentils, oat bran, nuts, and seeds are other ways to get soluble fiber.
  • Vitamin E: This powerful antioxidant plays a part in nearly 20 biochemical reactions in the body and is a key partner in immune system functioning. Look to almonds, peanuts and peanut butter, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and sunflower and organic soybean oil for vitamin E.
  • Vitamin D: This sunshine vitamin is a huge booster of the immune system. It’s found in food sources such as fortified orange juice and natural cereals, as well as oily fish (sardines, tuna, salmon). Consider taking a vitamin D supplement to ensure you are getting an optimal amount.
  • Folate/Folic Acid/Folinic Acid: Your body needs a balance of folate (vitamin B9; folic acid is the synthetic form) and vitamin B12 to support immune function. Leafy greens, avocado, lentils, and beans are great sources of folate.
  • Selenium: This mineral helps prevent infections. Brazil nuts are the clear winner for providing selenium because one nut gives you 100% of your daily requirement. You’ll also find selenium in tuna, sardines, chicken, and cottage cheese.
  • Iron: This mineral helps transport oxygen to your cells and is a partner in many immune system processes. Beans, broccoli, kale, chicken, tuna, oysters, and sardines are good sources.
  • Zinc: In order for your body to make new immune system cells, it needs zinc. Chickpeas, whole grains, nuts, baked beans, and chicken are good sources.
  • Herbs and Spices: Among the best immune-boosting herbs and spices are turmeric (which contains curcumin and other antioxidants that provide anti-inflammatory benefits), ginger (it also has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects), garlic (contains immune-supporting allicin), rosemary (potent antioxidant), and oregano (an antioxidant).

All of these nutrients can easily be added to your menu and definitely wake up your meals as well!

A young woman with two children unpacking shopping in a kitchen.

Getting Kids on Board

We both agreed that, as Mareya says, it’s critical to “get them working.” If you include your children in food selection and preparation, you are more likely to get their cooperation when it comes to consuming healthy foods. I know, better said than done, but one of Mareya’s solutions is to ask kids to help with the cooking. She says, “have no qualms” about tossing spinach into sauce or broccoli into a sauté. When kids have skin in the game, they are more likely to taste something they picked out themselves or helped to prepare.

You can even make the experience more entertaining by allowing them to dress up with aprons and chef hats. This strategy may not work with older kids, but young ones may be eager to join in the fun and even agree to have their picture taken. While you’re encouraging kids in the kitchen, don’t forget the garden. Kids enjoy getting their hands dirty, and Mareya points out that kids love to grow their own food.

Convincing kids that eating more fruits and vegetables will help boost their immune function isn’t always a great selling point, and you will need to practice patience and creativity to get them to develop a taste for new flavors. That’s where the shopping, growing, and cooking can help. In fact, it can take up to 20 times of trying a food before children will willingly eat it.

Kids and plush vegetables

Getting Everyone to Eat More Fruits and Veggies

Kids of all ages (that means you too, moms and dads) may need creative ways to get more fruits and vegetables into their diet. Mareya has a few ideas hidden in her chef’s hat:

  • Raw carrots, cucumber, jicama, sugar snap peas, bell peppers, and celery are great dipping sticks to use in highly nutritious dips, such as hummus, salsa, pesto, or bean spreads. Strawberries, apple and pear slices, and cherries are good dunkers in dark chocolate (which is high in antioxidants as well!).
  • If you need to sneak in your veggies, a thick pasta or pizza sauce is one way to go. You can toss greens, bell peppers, tomatoes, garlic, zucchini, onion, and cauliflower into a blender, pulse ‘til fine, and stir into your sauce. You get a great antioxidant boost without a green leaf in sight! Make a big batch and freeze the leftover sauce in ice cube trays for future use.
  • Did you know you can use sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, and other veggies in your baked goods? In some recipes, these veggies can substitute sugar and fat, which means you are increasing the nutritional value of your recipe and lowering calories as well.
  • Smoothies are the new milkshake. Almond, coconut, cashew, oat milk, or even coconut water, are great starters for smoothies. Simply pour into a blender and add greens, berries, banana, nuts, and blend until smooth. Smoothies are delicious and full of fruity goodness!
  • Popsicles appeal to all ages because they are fun, refreshing, and taste great. You can easily make your own popsicles that contain fruits and veggies. You can even add yogurt or coconut milk to make them creamy. It’s a creative way to get in 5 to 10 fruits and vegetables a day.
Raw organic vegetables

How to Eat More Healthy Foods

We suggest a strategic approach to shopping to make sure you are always making the healthiest choices, including:

  • Shop in the produce aisles, farmers markets, and at ethnic food stores. They typically provide wholesome options that will give you nutrient-dense options and help you to diversify your meals.
  • Shop seasonally so you can get the freshest produce. This way you also support local producers — an extra bonus!
  • Help keep your produce fresh up to five times longer by using Eat Cleaner Fruit + Veggie Wash. It helps you save your produce so you can reduce food waste.
  • Shop in bulk. Seeds, nuts, natural cereals, grains, and flours all can be purchased in bulk, and allows you to try a smaller amount before committing to a larger package.
Close Up Of Man Eating Healthy Breakfast Of Granola In Cafe
Here is one of Mareya’s favorite recipes from her cookbook: Eat Like You Give A Fork: The Real Dish on Eating to Thrive.

The Ultimate Frozen Buddha Bowl

Makes one bowl

Ingredients: 1⁄2 frozen banana, peel left on
1 3.5 ounce packet frozen no-sugar-added açai or pitaya
1 teaspoon ground flaxseed
1⁄4 cup unsweetened non-dairy milk (almond, rice, coconut, soy, hemp)
1⁄2 teaspoon raw coconut oil
1 cup plain coconut yogurt
1⁄2 teaspoon spirulina powder
1⁄2 teaspoon raw honey

OPTIONAL TOPPINGS Pomegranate arils
Fresh pitaya and lychee fruit
Grape halves
Hulled sunflower seeds or raw hemp hearts
Maca powder
Unsweetened cocoa powder

Directions:

1. In a food processor or blender, combine the banana, açai, flaxseed, milk, and coconut oil. Blend on medium to high speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until smooth and creamy. Pour into a bowl and add the yogurt, spirulina, and honey. Stir until completely smooth.

2. Top your Buddha bowl with an assortment of toppings and feel Zen-like immediately. You can even serve it in a fresh pitaya bowl.

Bottom Line

We all need to choose more immune-boosting foods as part of our daily menu. It is entirely possible to make delicious, convenient, and healthy choices that can appeal to all family members. Eating a diet low in sugar and high in nutrients will not only help to nourish our physical bodies but will also positively impact our mental health. You may be familiar with the saying, “We are what we eat.” It’s true; however, even more importantly, we are what absorb. Eating whole, unprocessed foods will benefit our immune systems and our mental health.

About Andrea Donsky, RHN

Andrea Donsky is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Founder of NaturallySavvy.com—a multiple award-winning website. Among her numerous publications, Andrea co-authored the best-selling book “Unjunk Your Junk Food” published by Simon and Schuster. She also co-authored “Label Lessons: Your Guide to a Healthy Shopping Cart,” and “Label Lessons: Unjunk Your Kid’s Lunch Box.” Andrea co-hosts the Naturally Savvy weekly podcast and appears as a Healthy Living Expert on TV and radio across North America. She is also a regular guest expert on Cityline and Breakfast Television. Andrea has 21 years of experience in the health & wellness space, and is a multiple award-winning Influencer.