One of the best ways to stay healthy is by choosing an array of foods to boost your immune system. Eating healthy, antioxidant-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is an important part of maintaining good immune system health to help ward off infection and illness.
White blood cells are a key part of the immune system. These disease-fighters circulate through the body to fight bacteria and viruses, working to slow or stop the illnesses that these germs can cause.1 So it’s important to eat nourishing foods, especially those with protein, vitamin B12, and folate,2 to help make sure your immune system has enough white blood cells to do its job.
While no one food is a silver bullet for optimal immune system function, these have been studied for their potential positive effects, including increasing white blood cells and fighting inflammation (as antioxidants can).3
Omega-3 fatty acids and other healthy fats help increase the activity of white blood cells. There are a few different kinds of omega 3s. Oily fish contains docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).
Certain nuts and vegetable oils contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can only be acquired through foods. The body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA, but it’s more efficient to consume them in your diet.4
Omega-3s may also play an important role in the production of compounds that regulate immunity in the body and help protect the body from damage from over-reacting to infections.
The best way to get the omega 3-fatty acids DHA and EPA is by eating fatty fish such as tuna, salmon, and mackerel. You can also get these omega-3s through krill oil capsules or algae supplements (which is a vegan source). Other sources of the omega-3 fatty acid ALA include flax seeds, flax oil, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and walnuts.
Kid-friendly serving idea: Make canned wild salmon into salmon salad sandwiches or add anchovies or sardines to pasta sauce. Add a few spoonfuls of flax oil to an antioxidant-rich berry smoothie, make chia seed pudding, or make a yogurt parfait with fresh berries, granola, and a sprinkling of walnuts on top.
When choosing yogurt, go for the style you enjoy the most. It’s important to choose a variety that uses live and active cultures. If you opt for plain yogurt and add fruit, spices, and a little of your favorite sweetener, you will have a lower-sugar snack that’s also loaded with calcium.
Studies have shown that the live cultures in yogurt can protect the intestinal tract against gastrointestinal illnesses and increase resistance to immune-related diseases such as infection and even cancer.5
The beneficial live cultures in yogurt, such as lactobacillus acidophilus, may help prevent colds and other infections or shorten their duration, although more research is needed. Yogurt can also be a good source of protein, which the body uses to make white blood cells.
Kid-friendly serving idea: Spoon some plain yogurt into a bowl with berries and drizzle honey over it for a potent immune system boosting snack. Add plain yogurt to a smoothie, use plain yogurt in place of sour cream, or make a yogurt parfait with fresh berries, granola, and a sprinkling of nuts on top.
Poultry and Lean Meats
Foods high in protein, such as lean meats and poultry, are high in zinc—a mineral that increases white blood cells and T-cells, which fight infection. Other great sources of zinc are oysters, nuts, fortified cereal, and beans.
Kid-friendly serving idea: Simmer some chicken vegetable soup or minestrone soup for a hearty dose of immune system-boosting antioxidants.
Carotenoids such as beta-carotene are important antioxidants that aid in immune system function.6
Carotenoids are present in bright yellow, orange, and red fruits and vegetables, although they can also be found in fruits and veggies that are mostly green.
It’s important to get a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors because various types of carotenoids are thought to work together to strengthen the body’s immune system.
Make it kid-friendly: Add roasted red peppers to pasta, offer multi-colored peppers for dipping into hummus, roast winter squash with cinnamon and ginger.
These protein-packed powerhouses of vitamins and minerals are rich in antioxidants such as vitamin E, omega-3 fatty acids, and zinc.
Studies have shown a link between eating nuts and health benefits such as a lower risk of chronic disease.7
Kid-friendly snack idea: Slather nut butter on whole wheat bread, celery, or an apple for an antioxidant-rich snack.
Berries are rich in vitamin C and bioflavonoids, phytochemicals found in fruits and vegetables that may work as antioxidants and prevent injury to cells.8
One cup of strawberries contains as much as 100 milligrams of vitamin C, which is nearly as much as a cup of orange juice. Dark berries such as blueberries are especially high in bioflavonoids. For an optimal immune system boosting effect, eat a bowl of mixed berries, or vary which berries you choose from day to day, rather than eating just one type.
Most of the clinical studies done on garlic’s potential antibacterial and antiviral properties use concentrated extracts. However, historically, cloves of garlic have been used in food for an assortment of health-related reasons.9 If you enjoy garlic, it doesn’t hurt to include it in your meals and it is possible that some of the health benefits seen from the extracts also translate to culinary uses.
Kid-friendly serving idea: Put lots of garlic into chicken noodle soup. Put some minced garlic into a Greek-style salad made with cucumber, tomato, and feta cheese.
Mushrooms may be a potent weapon in warding off colds, flu, and other infections. Studies on fresh mushrooms, dried mushrooms, and extracts have shown that mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake, and reishi have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-tumor effects.10
Make it kid-friendly: Slice up some shiitake mushrooms and add them to a stir fry or omelet. Use sauteed mushrooms as taco or burrito filling, or stir them into miso soup.
Here’s some happy news for chocolate lovers everywhere: Some studies indicate that cocoa and extracts of cocoa might positively affect various aspects of the immune system as well as act as a powerful antioxidant. As long as you keep the sugar and fat to a minimum, unsweetened cocoa and cocoa powder may play a role in immune system health.
The studies on cocoa are often done on extracts, although they may extrapolate the amount of extract used to a correlating amount of cocoa. Recent studies have also looked at cocoa as a whole and even dark chocolate.
Studies have shown that regular consumption of cocoa/extracts may reduce heart disease risk, help raise good cholesterol, and possibly reverse blood vessel damage in people with diabetes.11
Make it kid-friendly: Add cocoa powder and mashed banana to oatmeal while it’s cooking, or make avocado-cocoa pudding. Try cocoa in savory dishes mixed with spices such as chili powder. Or, the classic: Have a mug of hot chocolate made with cocoa powder, milk, and a bit of sugar.
Demonstrating good timing, these delicious fruits make their appearance right around cold and flu season. Persimmons are high in vitamins A and C, which are important for immune system function.
Just one medium persimmon has about half of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A, which has been shown to play a key role in the regulation of immune cells.
- Other sources of vitamin A: Pumpkins, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, spinach
- Other sources of vitamin C: Strawberries, papaya, kiwi, cantaloupe, oranges
Kid-friendly serving idea: Kids love a good presentation. Cut up some persimmons, strawberries, and kiwi or other fruit and arrange on a plate in a fun, pleasing display.
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