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How Foods Can Boost Your Immune System

Eating a variety of nutritious foods can help your body fight off illness

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Updated February 18, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

How Foods Can Boost Your Immune System
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While there is no one magic food that will boost your family’s immune system health, eating a well-balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein is an important part of maintaining good health. “You won’t have optimal immune system function unless you have a balanced diet that builds infection-fighting white blood cells and otherwise help the body fight protect itself,” says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center.

Fresh fruit and vegetables provide a wide array of nutrients and antioxidants, components present in food that prevent or repair injury to cells, improve immune system function, and help reduce the risk of infection. Antioxidants include lycopene, carotenoids such as beta carotene, and vitamins A, C, and E. Choose brightly-colored vegetables and fruits, which tend to be high in antioxidants, to get the wide array of nutrients your body needs for optimal immune system function.

Why You Should Get Your Immune-Boosting Antioxidants from Food

It’s important to note that most people are able to get the nutrients they need from a well-balanced diet. Supplements touting “immunity boosting benefits” may be unnecessary, and taking too much of one vitamin or other supplement can, in some cases, be harmful.

Taking supplements to boost your immune system could also mean that you are missing out on key components of food that work together to strengthen the body’s ability to fight off infection. So, for example, a plate of leafy green salad with bright red peppers, tomatoes with a bowl of chicken and vegetable soup may offer a medley of immune-boosting nutrients working together to enhance their power in a way that a vitamin or other supplement simply cannot match.

If you think that you or your family might not be getting enough nutrients for overall health and healthy immune system function, talk to your doctor before making any changes to your diet or taking any supplements.

In addition to eating foods that are beneficial for your immune system, be sure to get plenty of rest, practice good hand washing habits, and take other steps to ward off illness during cold and flu season.

For a list of foods that are especially good for immune system health, see "10 Best Foods to Boost Your Immune System."

Sources:

Interview with David Katz, MD, director of the Yale Prevention Research Center

Butt MS, Sultan MT, Butt MS, Iqbal J., “Garlic: nature's protection against physiological threats,” Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2009 Jun;49(6):538-51.

Ulrike Lindequist,* Timo H. J. Niedermeyer, and Wolf-Dieter Jülich, “The Pharmacological Potential of Mushrooms,” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 September; 2(3): 285–299

Meydani SN, Ha WK. “Immunologic effects of yogurt,” Am J Clin Nutr. 2000 Apr;71(4):861-72.

Pino-Lagos K, Guo Y, Noelle RJ., Biofactors. 2010 Nov;36(6):430-6. doi: 10.1002/biof.117. Epub 2010 Aug 27, “Retinoic acid: A key player in immunity”

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