Foods That Help Fight Seasonal Cold and Flu
Dec 16, 2020
This cold and flu season is already unlike any other – and it has not even peaked. With the coronavirus pandemic still raging in the United States, it is more important than ever to make concerted efforts to protect your health any way you can. Of course, getting an annual flu shot can take you a long way in avoiding illness during cold and flu season, but what other options do you have?
Like most things with your body – the state of your immune system and overall health starts with what you eat.
When you or a loved one is battling the flu or a cold, eating may feel like a chore. A reduced appetite is normal when sick – especially with the flu – but you need to make sure you eat enough of the right kinds of foods to ensure you get the energy and nutrients you need to make a full recovery. A diet packed with proteins, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can help strengthen the natural immune system and keep symptoms at bay.
While most essential vitamins and nutrients can also be taken in supplement form, consuming them through foods is ideal. No food has curative powers when it comes to the flu or a cold but eating the right meals can help fortify your body fight off infection. Here are some foods, broken down by vitamin or nutrient type, you should consider adding to your diet to help fight seasonal cold and flu:
Vitamin A (Beta-Carotene)
Vitamin A is an important nutrient that supports healthy vision, the immune system, and reproduction. Vitamin A also helps the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs work properly. Altogether, the different benefits of vitamin A can work to stave off cold and flu.1
Vitamin A is found naturally in many foods, including:
- Sweet potato
- Red bell peppers
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant to help your body fight off infection. This vitamin is a critical component of the overall functioning of your immune system. It can most commonly be found in high-fat plant foods including:2
- Oils including sunflower, soybean and safflower
Probiotics, commonly referred to as “good bacteria,” have been associated with health benefits – most notably intestinal healthy and immunity. Although the evidence is not conclusive, some research has suggested that probiotics can help prevent upper respiratory tract infections, which covers the common cold.3
Food-wise, probiotics can be found in:
Vitamin C is an essential nutrient supporting the body’s healing process. It cannot prevent colds on its own, but research has shown that people with adequate vitamin C levels before getting a cold experience less severe symptoms and reduced time being sick. People who only increase their vitamin C intake after getting sick do not experience those same benefits.3
You do not produce vitamin C naturally, so you need to get it from your diet or supplement form. Citrus fruits are well-known for their vitamin C content, but other foods you include can focus on include:2
- Brussel sprouts
- Bell peppers
Iron helps the body carry oxygen through to cells, which helps to support all the immune system processes. Although iron can be found in many consumable sources – including supplements – this nutrient is best absorbed from animal sources. Foods falling into this category include:2
- Red meat (in moderation)
- Shellfish like oysters, mussels and clams
- Canned tuna
- For vegetarians, non-animal sources of protein:
Folate and Folic Acid
Folate is a form of B vitamin that is vital for the production and maintenance of the body’s cells, including making or repairing DNA and RNA changes. This function suggests that a deficiency in folate could affect immunity, which of course plays a role in the body’s ability to fight cold and flu.4
Folic acid is the synthetic form of folate and is often added as part of the food processing process to help add health benefits to those foods. Folate naturally occurs in some food sources, such as beans, lentils and leafy greens. Foods you can buy fortified with folic acid include:
- Enriched pasta
- Enriched bread
- Enriched rice
Just be sure to check the label first – foods enriched with folic acid will be marked as such.
Zinc is required to produce new immune system cells, and so it follows that not getting enough zinc has been linked to immune system dysfunction. Zinc is most abundant in animal food sources, but non-animal foods can also serve as great sources of zinc. Zinc-rich foods include:2
- Red meat (in moderation)
Protein is critical for building and repairing body tissue to fight viral and bacterial infections. Certain amino acids found in protein are essential for T-cell function – the cells responsible for protecting the body against pathogens. Antibodies and other immune system cells rely on protein, and not getting enough protein means the body cannot effectively fight cold and flu.5
Protein-rich foods to incorporate into your diet include:
Additional Tip: Stay Hydrated
People with the flu often do not feel like drinking or eating very much, which can ultimately lead to dehydration. Staying hydrated is important to help support the function of your body overall, but when you are sick, fluids can help break up congestion and fight infection.
Water is always the best option when it comes to options for staying hydrated, but if you are looking for something with a little more flavor, the following drinks can help:
- Ginger tea
- Herbal tea with honey
- Lemon tea and honey mixed with hot water
- 100% juices, which can also help increase your vitamin intake.
Avoid beverages with added sugars or caffeine as these ingredients can work against your hydration efforts.
There is Such a Thing as Too Much of a Good Thing
Although the above foods can help fight seasonal cold and flu, you will want to ensure you are eating everything in moderation. Do not go overboard – at some point, there is a diminishing return on benefit and overconsumption of some of these vitamins and nutrients can cause damage to the body.
Instead of overdoing it with your food choices, focus on ensuring you are keeping up with other healthy behaviors shown to help protect against cold and flu, namely:6
- Washing your hands frequently and effectively
- Regular exercise
- Getting enough sleep
- Keeping stress levels in check
- Staying within a healthy weight range
- Not smoking
- Avoiding overconsumption of alcohol
- National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Vitamin A. Last reviewed February 14, 2020.
- The Cleveland Clinic. 8 Vitamins & Minerals You Need for a Healthy Immune System. Last reviewed December 4, 2020.
- National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. 5 Tips: Natural Products for the Flu and Colds: What Does the Science Say? Last reviewed December 16, 2020.
- Harvard Medical School. Ask the doctor: Does folic acid improve immunity? Last reviewed February 2011.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Support Your Health with Nutrition. Last reviewed April 2020.
- Harvard Medical School. How to boost your immune system. Last reviewed April 6, 2020.
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