Menu Close

Eat Yourself Well With These Immune-Supporting Diet Tips

Eat Yourself Well 1

If you manage to get through winter without catching a single cold, there’s probably a good dose of luck involved, because the viruses that bring on those coughs and sniffles can spread very easily.

So, the number one way to ward off infection? Stopping the spread of bugs in the first place, by practising good hand hygiene, covering your mouth if you’re coughing and sneezing, avoiding close contact, and trying not to spend all day long cooped up in confined shared spaces (often easier said than done, of course).

That said, there are things we can do to help support our immune systems.

Diet isn’t the be-all and end-all (rather, it’s just part of the picture within a healthy lifestyle), but what we put into our bodies no doubt plays a part.

Close up of smiling woman drinking fresh juice with straw on white background. Female having a glass of fruit juice and smiling.

“There’s a deeply entwined relationship between nutrition and the immune system,” says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi (@dr_jenna_macciochi), “but it’s a complex one.”

Basically, in order to get the most out of the nutrition you consume, it’s important to look at the whole picture, including getting enough sleep and exercise, not smoking or drinking too much alcohol, and keeping stress in check.

But what does an immune-supporting diet look like? Here are some top tips…

Balance is key

“A balanced immune system requires a balanced diet, hitting all the macronutrients and micronutrients to support the metabolic and functional demands of the immune system,” says Macciochi. This means eating a wide range of foods, including fibre, which is vital.

Healthy buddha bowl lunch with grilled chicken, quinoa, spinach, avocado, brussels sprouts, broccoli, red beans with sesame seeds on dark gray background. Top view.

“Adequate fibre and phytonutrient (found in fruit and veg) intake nourishes the microbiome, keeping our barriers to infection robust,” says Macciochi.

This, she explains, allows key protectors like the gut and lungs to produce bioactive compounds with broad-ranging health benefits, including boosting the number and health of our immune cells.

Feed your gut

young woman who makes a heart shape by hands on her stomach.

“Even with a healthy diet, our nutrition is only ever as good as our gut microbiome,” says Macciochi.

“The bugs in our gut are responsible for the production and bioactivity of many of the nutrients from the food we eat. A healthy microbiome is a diverse one and relies on us eating a diverse diet.”

While nothing beats a good diet, the microbiome-feeding pre and probiotic supplements industry is booming.

Our microbiome is unique to each of us, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work, but some high-quality supplements could have some benefits.

“Stick to preparations that contain well-researched bacteria strains – such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium – in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving,” suggests Healthspan nutritionist, Rob Hobson.

Vitamins and minerals

Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals is essential for optimal overall health and function, but certain nutrients may play a more direct role in helping us fight bugs.

“Vitamin E, iron, zinc and selenium are all required for the production of antibodies that fight infections.

Hobson explains that the association with Vitamin C and zinc has been made regarding the reduced risk of infection and length of colds.

Oils, nuts, nut butter and seeds will help with vitamin E. “Extra virgin olive oil is the best oil to use on a daily basis and contributes to vitamin E intake,” adds Hobson.

Smoothies can have nuts and seeds blended into them or be sprinkled over roasted winter vegetables or frittatas.

Nut butters also make a good breakfast spread on wholemeal bagels, topped with banana.”

Eat Yourself Well

Meanwhile, selenium is abundant in whole grains and wheat such as oats, brown rice, and bulgur wheat.

And when it comes to vitamin C, red peppers, citrus fruit, berries, kale, broccoli and potatoes are all strong contenders.

When berries go out of season, Hobson suggests using frozen ones (ideal for jazzing up porridge, blitzing in a smoothie or even the odd winter crumble).

Hobson suggests that dark green, leafy vegetables like kale are readily available in winter and can be incorporated into soups, stews, and casseroles.

“Potatoes are also rich in vitamin C, and nothing beats mashed potato as the ultimate winter comfort food.”

Shellfish, eggs, dairy, pulses, tofu, red meat and wholegrains all aid zinc intake.

Watch those iron levels 

Low iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, and with plant-based diets increasingly popular, it’s easy to fall short, as red meat is one of the best-known sources of the stuff.

However, it is possible to get enough iron without eating red meat – beans, eggs, pulses, lentils and oats all also pack an iron punch.

Eat Yourself Well

“Serve non-meat sources of iron with vitamin C, which helps the body absorb this nutrient,” suggests Hobson.

Beans also help keep protein levels up – key, alongside iron, in stable energy levels and overall healthy functioning.

Constantly exhausted and struggling with low energy? If you think you might be lacking in iron, see your GP.some people do need to top-up with iron supplements but it is always best to seek a professional diagnosis and advice.

Get spicy

Hobson adds that dried spices, frequently overlooked, serve as a rich source of iron.

Spices contain a range of antioxidants too, and there are good reasons why turmeric is setting the gold standard in ‘super food’ spices.

“As well as being anti-inflammatory, turmeric is a good inhibitor to vital entry into our cells,” says Macciochi. “Adding this spice regularly to meals could be useful to ward off infections.”

Top up with supplements

Though nutritional supplements may frequently appear as nothing more than a marketing ploy (and, to be fair, this may often be the case), they also have their place.

The recommendation now is for UK adults to consider a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months.

Why? The vital role of Vitamin D supports the maintenance of healthy bones, teeth, and muscles, contributing to overall well-being.

From October until early March, when the skies are bright, there simply isn’t enough of the ‘right’ kind of sunshine to meet our needs.

Most of the Vitamin D required by our bodies is produced through skin exposure to sunlight.

While foods like salmon, mushrooms and eggs are good dietary sources, diet alone won’t provide all the vitamin D we really need.

“Opt for a supplement containing vitamin D3, which is the most useable form of this nutrient,” says Hobson.

Generally speaking, the jury is out on whether we ‘need’ other supplements, but there might be times when topping up with a high-quality supplement is a good idea. Hobson suggests a multivitamin as a good all-rounder.