If you’re like most people, your response when sickness hits is to take a pill. While this approach is sensible for fighting off disease and infection, it doesn’t work the same way when it comes to building up your body’s natural defenses. Gulping down supplements might seem like an easy way to boost your immune system, but research shows that the beneficial effects of minerals and vitamins were much more pronounced in those who consumed those nutrients as part of real food, as opposed to taking supplements.
There’s also the possibility of taking so much of a given supplement that you do more harm than good. With a huge variety of nutritional supplements just a click away, it’s far too easy to ingest potentially toxic amounts of a particular nutrient. (Just look at what’s been happening with turmeric.)
According to Dr. Clifford Lo, an associate professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, nutrients are most potent when they come from food. Plus, he adds, “consuming immune-boosting nutrients through food brings an entourage of other beneficial nutrients, such as hundreds of carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals, and antioxidants that aren’t in most supplements.” Not to mention food tastes better and is often less expensive than stocking up on bottles of individual vitamins and minerals.
We’ve pulled together a list of some of the top foods for boosting your immune system, as well as some easy ways to incorporate them into your shelter-in-place menu. As the French say, “à ta santé.”
Red Bell Pepper
If you’re like most people, you’ve been taught to mainline Vitamin C as soon as cold season begins. Outside of a capsule, orange juice has been the most popular way to get your daily intake of vitamin C. Thing is, all that sugar in your system kind of offsets the benefit — any form of sugar, even the natural kind, is no bueno for your immune system. In lieu of citrus, we present for your consideration the red bell pepper. It’s sweet, it’s crunchy, it tastes great raw or cooked, and just one medium-sized pepper contains enough vitamin C to fully arm the body against infection.
Try this: Roast a couple red bell peppers (in the oven or over an open flame), then puree and add into a tomato sauce or soup for an unexpected caramel-like flavor.
Another perennial cure-all, garlic’s immune-supporting powers are well backed by scientific research. Smash open a clove, and drink in the smell of that antibacterial, immune cell-enhancing elixir. Studies show that healthy adults who consume garlic for 90 days experienced much milder symptoms of seasonal illnesses like cold and flu than those who took a placebo. (Given what we know about this virus, we’re happy to settle for milder symptoms.)
Try this: Wrap a whole bulb of garlic (not just a clove) in aluminum foil, pop in the oven for 20 minutes. When you take it out and pierce the skins, you’ll find little petals of pure molten deliciousness. Spread it on toast, sprinkle with salt and olive oil, and try not to make awkward moaning sounds.
Sweet Potatoes, Carrots, and Butternut Squash
Do you even beta carotene, bro? This antioxidant, a precursor to the body manufacturing vitamin A, supports the immune system by triggering the production of white blood cells that fight viruses and bacteria. Beta-carotene also helps form mucous membranes within the respiratory tract, which serves as a barrier against germs. Nature’s own face mask, if you will. Just a cup of sweet potato or carrot will give you all the beta carotene you need for the day.
Try this: Toss chunks of sweet potato, carrot and/or butternut squash carrot in some lemon-scented olive oil and roast at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes (until soft enough to spear with a fork). Remove and add salt and a fresh herb like dill, rosemary, or marjoram.
We all kind of know that cruciferous vegetables are good for fighting illness. But cauliflower tends to be the red-headed stepchild of this prestigious family, overlooked for its forgettable color and bland flavor. The most action cauliflower sees these days is when it’s disguised by dieters as potatoes. (Which we think is an insult to both vegetables) However, in addition to having all the antioxidant powers of its greener cousins, cauliflower is rich in glutathione, a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off infection. Worth a second look, don’t you think?
Try this: Roast cauliflower chunks at 450 degrees F until the tips are brown and they give off a popcorn-like smell. Toss with avocado oil, a healthy sprinkling of curry powder, and a handful of golden raisins. You’ll never look at cauliflower the same way again.
With all the hype about foods that search-and-destroy toxins, bacteria and viruses, nobody thinks to mention the foods that help shuttle the nasty stuff out of the body. In short, we’re talking about fiber, which means we’re talking about beans. Shelter-in-place has been a real popularity boom for the humble bean, finding its way off the dusty back shelf and diving straight into our hearts and our Instant Pots. But along with binding to the waste in our blood and moving it on outta there, beans also have the virtue of zinc, a mineral that plays a crucial role in immune cell production.
Try this: Fry some garlic and shallots in olive oil, then add a tablespoon of tomato paste, a tablespoon of vinegar, and a can of your favorite beans. Stir it all together until it’s warm, then serve over greens or crusty bread (or both).
If the greenmarket stalls are anything to go by, fennel tends to strike people as a vegetable only a chef could love. It looks more like a weed than a food, and has a faintly licorice-y smell … so what are you supposed to do with it? Protect your liver, for one thing — eating fennel is linked to a boosted production in liver enzymes, which detoxify the body so your immune system doesn’t get overworked. It’s also rich in a variety of minerals and vitamins, and is one of the only vegetable sources of selenium, which we’ll say more about next.
Try this: Thinly slice fennel bulb into crescents, then toss with orange sections in a light-bodied olive oil with a little salt.
Forget everything you think you know about sardines. These little silver darlings are worth their weight in gold, thanks to the high-quality protein and fat they offer. But one of sardines’ lesser known virtues is their quantity of selenium, a mineral that facilitates a quick immune response to illness. It also protects cells from being attacked in ways that damage DNA. Just 3 ounces of sardines provides over 80% of the selenium you need. If the idea of sardines makes you squeamish, just look for boneless, skinless varieties packed in olive oil or marinara sauce.
Try this: Chop sardines into a mash, add olive oil mayonnaise, capers, and a favorite herb, and scoop with crackers.
There’s a reason these delicious legumes are shaped like a brain. Walnuts contain an enormous amount of vitamin E, which protects neurons from damage. But along with helping sustain cognition and memory, vitamin E plays a key role in immune system function. Walnuts are also anti-inflammatory and have been shown to reduce psychological stress, a service we could all use right now.
Try this: Toast walnuts in the oven or on the stovetop until they darken in color. Cool slightly and chop coarsely, then sprinkle over a piece of toast with your favorite imported cheese melted over the top.
One of the keys to staying healthy when enduring any seasonal illness is making sure your immune system isn’t overworked already. You don’t want your white blood cells to be off fighting fires in another part of the body when a virus enters your system. Fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi are heavy hitters against bacterial overgrowth, a commonplace problem that most Americans write off as indigestion, migraine headaches, or fatigue.
Try this: Add a scoop of plain, unsweetened yogurt to a bowl of lentil curry or savory black beans, then top with a spicy spoonful of kimchi. Stir it up and scoop with chips or crackers.
The juice that has it all, pomegranate swaggers through the produce aisle with an entourage of immune-boosting nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, and potassium. Not to mention that the flavonoid antioxidants found in pomegranate juice have been shown to combat viruses, decreasing the duration of a cold by as much as 40%. You want more? How does three times the antioxidant activity of red wine and green tea sound? Pomegranate juice has that, too. Drink up.
Try this: Pour a generous splash of pomegranate juice into plain seltzer or mineral water, shake up with a grating of fresh ginger, and pour into a glass after rubbing a twist of lime or orange peel around the rim.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Despite the number of hippies that swear by it, ACV is no snake oil. No, it can’t kill coronavirus (as some people are advocating), but it does offer a powerful assist to your immune system thanks to its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Not to mention that it improves the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut (see above). Just don’t overdo it — up to a tablespoon per day, taken in food or a glass of water, is all you need.
Try this: The shudderingly sour taste of ACV doesn’t exactly lend itself to gastronomy, so we recommend getting your ACV the easy way: by ordering a case of Ethan’s Fire Shots. These cute little 2-oz. servings combine apple cider vinegar with other healthy fruit and spice extracts for delicious flavors like Ginger Pineapple and Cinnamon Maple. Throw one down each morning and you’ll feel like a new man.