Healthy Eating

6 Immune-Supporting Eating Habits

Plus, the foods you’ll want to focus on.

By: Lauren Manaker MS, RDN, LD, CLEC

As we head into the colder months, the threat of colds, flu, and other pesky illnesses looms. No matter if it’s a mere runny nose from a common cold or something more serious like influenza, it’s crucial to build our defenses and support our immune system. Why? Because by strengthening our immune system ahead of time, there’s a good chance we can ward off pathogens before they have the chance to strike! In fact, preventative action is key. Despite the fact that we can’t always control our exposure to pathogens, simple daily habits (like quality sleep, stress management, and daily movement) can help our body stay alert and ready to fight. And while focusing on an overall healthy lifestyle is ideal, prioritizing a healthy diet is essential. 

According to research, the foods we eat directly impact our immune function — for better or worse. But, not to worry — if you’re unsure of where to start, we’re here to help!

Ahead, the best immune-supporting eating habits that will help you bolster your defenses with ease!

RELATED: 9 Things to Do Daily to Help Avoid Getting Sick 

The Role of Diet & Our Immune System 

Before we dive into healthy eating habits that support your immune system, it’s important to first understand the connection between diet and immunity.

Simply put, food is fuel. It is the foundation upon which our body operates, including our immune system. Therefore, our food choices can either help to bolster our immune system or weaken our body’s defense mechanisms. 

In terms of eating to support our immune system, prioritizing a whole food diet from sources such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats is key. These foods are rich in nutrients like zinc, vitamin C, and vitamin D, all of which help supply our body with key vitamins and minerals needed for healthy immune function. Not only do these help to support our immunity, but there’s even research to suggest that deficiency in just one of these nutrients can alter and weaken our immune system!

As for foods that weaken our immune system? Not surprisingly, eating foods that contain too many added sugars, processed ingredients, refined fats, and excess sodium can work against our health goals and make us more susceptible to inflammation, disease, and illness.

The bottom line? Our diet can play a huge role in our immune health.

RELATED: Eating For Longevity: Top Tips For Eating Your Way to a Healthier Life

6 Immune Supporting Eating Habits 

Immune supporting eating habits are simple to include in a healthy lifestyle with a little know-how. While there are many ways that people can support their immune health, here are six evidence-based examples of how to help support a healthy immune system. 

#1 Avoid Eating Too Many Added Sugars

Plain and simple, too much sugar has been shown to weaken our immune system. From triggering inflammation to increasing the risk for heart attacks and strokes, there are many reasons to skip the sugar! So while noshing on candy and sodas may be delish, the risk certainly outweighs the benefit. And don’t forget about sneaky sugars! Hidden in unsuspecting foods (like tomato sauce, dressings, protein bars, and more), you could be eating more than you realize. Always read the ingredient label!

However, you can still satisfy your sweet tooth without sacrificing your immune health. The simple solution? Opt for treats made from whole foods — think a pitted date or two with nut butter or a sliced apple with peanut butter. Honey also makes a great natural sweetener for your morning coffee or tea, that also happens to be a rich source of antioxidants.

RELATED: The Healthiest Low-Sugar Fruits to Add to Your Diet

#2 Include Orange Juice In Your Diet

It’s no coincidence that a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice is a known cold and flu remedy! Rich in vitamin C and folate, pure (unsweetened) orange juice is full of important immune-supporting compounds and nutrients.

Just be sure to choose an orange juice that is free from added sugar, or if you’re feeling adventurous, make your own freshly squeezed OJ!

RELATED: The 5 Best Vitamin C Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet

#3 Skip The Salt Shaker

You may eat a balanced diet rich in immune-supporting nutrients. But if you are eating too much salt, you may be working against your health goals, regardless of how much OJ you are drinking. High-salt diets have been linked to a weakened immune system, so leaning on more natural seasonings that are sodium-free — think garlic, basil, and red pepper flakes — can be a smart swap in your diet. 

Keep in mind that many of us gravitate towards warming foods, like soups and stews this time of year. However, the canned varieties can be very high in sodium. Try making your own nourishing homemade soup where you can control how much added salt you add!

Try this delicious immune-supporting soup here.

#4 Sip on a Mocktail Instead of a Cocktail

A once-in-a-while alcoholic drink may not be a dealbreaker when it comes to your immune health. But overindulging in alcohol can result in some unsavory immune-related outcomes. Try sipping on a mocktail instead of a cocktail to help avoid drinking too much alcohol. Try unsweetened sparkling water with a splash of OJ for an added vitamin C boost! 

RELATED: 7 Low-Sugar Mocktail Ideas

#5 Eat Protein-Rich Foods

Foods like eggs, lean beef, tofu, and nuts all contain protein — an important macronutrient that plays many important roles in the body. And among the sea of functions it offers, protein plays a key role in immune function. While you don’t need to go protein-crazy, making sure you are including protein in your diet is extremely important for supporting your immune system. 

RELATED: 6 Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Protein 

#6 Eat Fermented Foods

From yogurt to kimchi to miso, there are tons of fermented foods that are enjoyable and packed with gut health-supporting live bacteria (probiotics). And we know when it comes to overall health, gut health is key! However, a healthy gut is particularly important for a healthy immune system. In fact, the tiny microbes that inhabit our gut (and make up the bulk of our immune system) are largely responsible for breaking down and absorbing nutrients needed for immune function, while also protecting our body against pathogens and foreign invaders. Thus, if we want to strengthen our immune system, loading up on gut-healthy foods is a must!

RELATED: The Best Foods For a Healthier Gut, According to an RD

Choosing Foods For A Healthy Immune System

Eating foods that support a healthy immune system is incredibly important, no matter what season it is. Just keep in mind that while a balanced and healthy diet can’t prevent illness, combining a healthy diet with other healthy lifestyle factors can help armor the body with what it needs to help combat illness. 

Things like a balanced eating plan, regular hand washing, stress management, quality sleep, and exercise are all important lifestyle factors to focus on as we head into the colder months and the notorious “germy” time of year.