Fitness Facts: Supporting immunity through nutrition

By Emily Orvos
GCU Registered Dietitian

As excited as Arizonians get for fall and winter, it also means one thing: “Sick” season is near. Cold and flu season, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, can leave our immune systems working overtime.

Don’t fret, though. I have good news! Nutrition can play a big role in supporting immunity, and you already may be incorporating many of the foods I talk about here in your diet. If not, challenge yourself to include some of these immune-boosting foods in your meals and snacks on a daily basis.

Vitamin C

Let’s start with probably the most common nutrition immune booster: Vitamin C. This powerful antioxidant supports your immune system by protecting the body’s cells from damage caused by free radicals.

Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin. So if you’re taking Emergen-C or other large-dose Vitamin C supplements, your body is excreting most of it out rather than absorbing it.

To get the most out of your Vitamin C, stick to two or three whole food sources daily. Most fruits and veggies are great, and bell peppers, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli and brussels sprouts pack the biggest punch. Yes, even more than oranges.

Zinc

Have you ever taken Cold-eeze or other zinc lozenges when you feel under the weather? If so, you’re in luck. Research has shown that supplemental zinc may reduce symptoms of the common cold and even help you get over your cold faster.

Not a fan of the metallic aftertaste of zinc lozenges? Incorporate more legumes and seeds in your diet. Chickpeas, kidney beans, pumpkin seeds and peas are all great.

Prebiotics and probiotics

Did you know 70% of your body’s immune cells are in your gut? Fueling your gut health also can fuel your immune health!

Prebiotics are the “food” for your good gut bacteria: probiotics. Including both types of foods in your diet (and a variety of each, at that) is a recipe for a happy gut. Bananas, onions, garlic, artichokes, asparagus, apples and oats are the best sources of prebiotics.

As far as probiotics, think fermented foods. Greek yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso and pickled veggies (kimchi is a great example) all contain live cultures, or the “good” gut bacteria. Some of these foods are a little more adventurous, but they can be a fun way to spice up meals you create.

Vitamin D

Research tells us Vitamin D deficiency is correlated with more frequent respiratory infections. If you find yourself constantly getting sick this time of year, Vitamin D may be something for you to get checked out.

You may have heard Vitamin D be referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” and with good reason. Spending about 15 minutes outside midday on most days meets many people’s Vitamin D needs, though others may need longer sun exposure.

For those who can’t get out and enjoy Arizona’s beautiful fall as often, be sure to include salmon, eggs and mushrooms in your diet to compensate. Many foods also are fortified with Vitamin D and can be helpful to include – cereal, oats, milk and orange juice, to name a few.

Bottom line

Remember, varied diets are best. Including lots of fruits and veggies (all colors are important), fiber-rich carbs, lean proteins and healthy fats will most effectively support your overall health.

Friendly reminder: While great nutrition is important and helpful, food is not a cure-all. Seek out a medical professional if you are sick past the point of an inconvenient cold.

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