Diet and the immune system
As with many conditions and illnesses, diet plays a huge role both in fighting infection and strengthening the immune system against infection. There are a few vital nutrients that the immune system needs, including zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D, which you’ll find in the foods below, as well as lots of other useful nutrients such as B vitamins, antioxidants and flavonoids. The key is really variety, so that you get a wide spectrum of all the nutrients your whole body needs to maintain good health.
While these foods are great to eat while you’re under the weather, don’t forget that you can include them in your diet long-term to help support the immune system and reduce the likelihood or severity of future infections.
So let’s get started: what are the best foods to eat for a cold or flu?
1. Citrus fruit
You’ll probably be expecting this one, so I thought I’d get it out of the way first. Citrus fruits are famous for their content of vitamin C, a vital vitamin for the immune system. However, they also tend to contain lots of antioxidants and nutrients such as carotenoids and flavonoids.
This makes them great foods to eat to support your immune system while it fights off a cold or flu.
Oranges and tangerines are the obvious choices, but don’t forget about grapefruit, blood orange, lemon and lime!
2. Leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
This includes kale, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, bok choy and cabbage. These vegetables are packed full of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, so they’re something I suggest to anyone looking for a healthier diet.
However, they are particularly useful for those of you trying to beat a cold or flu, as they are actually great sources of vitamin C – did you know, for example, that broccoli contains more vitamin C than oranges?
My favourite recipes:
Easy broccoli stir-fry with sesame and chilli
While I’m on the subject of foods that contain more vitamin C than oranges, I definitely need to mention blackcurrants. These tasty little berries are perhaps not as popular as the blueberry or the strawberry, but they contain a massive 181mg of vitamin C per 100g – that’s more than three times as much as the same weight of oranges!
This one might come as a surprise, but mushrooms are packed full of nutrients and antioxidants!
In particular, they’re a great source of vitamin D (one of the few vegetarian sources) which is vital for proper immune health. This makes mushrooms a great long-term choice to support the immune system after you’ve recovered from your infection.
They’re also a good source of B vitamins, which have a range of important functions including energy metabolism – which is great news when you’re feeling tired and drained from your cold or flu.
In fact, research has even shown that mushrooms have natural antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties! Certain types of mushrooms, including shiitake, are also considered to be quite medicinal so this is one vegetable that's definitely worth stocking up on!
My favourite recipes:
Herby mushroom and puy lentil soup
Gluten free buckwheat & mushroom risotto
Garlic is thought to have antiviral properties, so may be a good choice for viral infections such as the cold or flu. It’s even thought to promote the production of our immune cells, making it easier to fight off infections.
Traditionally it would be eaten raw to get the most of these benefits, but I understand this isn’t appealing to many! Provided you don’t cook the garlic for too long, it should retain many of its beneficial properties.
Alternatively, if you're not keen on adding extra garlic to your diet, Swiss Garlic Oil is also available in supplement form.
Elderberry can be helpful in keeping cold and flu infections away as it contains vitamins A and C which both support the immune system. It is also known to have anti-viral properties which boost immune function further.1
If an infection does take hold, elderberry can also help to calm symptoms including a blocked nose, sneezing and coughing.2
Elderberries are not readily available in supermarkets, but you can find them in combination with Echinacea in our Echinaforce Hot Drink.
This is an ideal pairing as elderberry and Echinacea work more effectively when taken together.3 Echinacea helps prevent a virus taking over a cell, whilst Elderberry blocks the virus from spreading across different cells. This can speed up recovery and reduces the chance of developing symptoms like headaches and chills.
7. Pumpkin seeds
These tasty little seeds are packed full of zinc – another vital nutrient for the immune system! However, like many seeds, they’re also full of lots of other useful nutrients.
You can buy pumpkin seeds on their own, but I’d recommend trying to buy whole pumpkins occasionally. You can scoop the seeds from the inside and toast them in the oven and then use the pumpkin flesh for a delicious winter-warming stew.
If you’re struggling to find pumpkins in your local supermarket outside of Halloween season, you could use butternut squash seeds instead!
Studies show that chicken soup in particular is great for immune function. It has been found to contain a substance known as carnosine, which is thought to be particularly useful during the initial stages of infection.
However, vegetable soups can be just as handy for a cold or flu if you pack them full of lots of great nutrients – for example, anything on this list so far! Make sure to include some greenery like kale, broccoli, spinach and cauliflower, as well as, of course, garlic.
Soup is also a nice choice while you’re under the weather because when we get a cold or flu our appetites often decrease, so this is a great way to get all the nutrients you need without eating anything too heavy.
One of my favourite soups for a cold or flu is this tasty Broccoli, kale and sweet potato soup with fitness mix sprouts.
Check out our soup recipe ebook below for some more ideas!
Much like soups, smoothies are a great way to load up on nutrients with little effort.
I’d definitely recommend including lots of vitamin C rich fruits – that’s your orange juice, kiwis, strawberries and blackcurrants – but don’t be afraid to include some leafy greens such as spinach or kale!
You can even add oats, chia seeds and nut butter for a more filling smoothie.
For some tasty recipe ideas, check out our supersmoothies ebook!
Your long-term immune boosting diet
Remember that prevention is better than a cure, so these foods should really be incorporated into your diet on a long-term basis – especially over the winter months.
Make sure your diet is filled with fresh fruit and veg, healthy fats, complex carbohydrates and lean protein, whilst avoiding processed foods, refined sugar and saturated fats. For some meal ideas, see my article on winter meals for the immune system.