When we feel that familiar cough creeping up, we often look for quick remedies to prevent the onset of sickness. Many reach for orange juice, thinking that the vitamin C will stop a cold dead in its tracks; others turn to chicken soup, hoping that their favorite comfort food will soothe their symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no single food or vitamin you can eat to stave off an oncoming illness (sorry to those of you who have a stash of Emergen-C in your desk drawer—despite hundreds of studies, vitamin C has not been found to stop or reduce the duration of a cold).
For the most part, nutritional and health status is influenced by the foods you eat day in and day out. While you can’t completely limit your exposure to bacteria and viruses, you can give your immune system its best chance to fight off those infections by eating a nutritious, balanced diet. Here are our top tips for healthy nutrition during cold season.
Vitamin C and zinc get all of the credit for keeping you cold-free, but almost every nutrient plays a role in immune health. Iron, selenium, copper, folic acid, vitamin A, B6, and E all modulate immune responses, and every other macro- and micronutrient affects other parts of your health that impact your immune system. These micronutrients are found in abundance in fruits and vegetables, and each offers a unique cocktail of vitamins and minerals. To get a good balance of these crucial micronutrients, use color as your guide—aim to eat a one or more different colors (as well as white!) of fruits and veggies at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you have a restrictive diet or you suspect you’re not eating enough fruits and vegetables, consider taking a multivitamin.
Bump Up Your Fiber Intake
If you’re eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, this one will come naturally—produce is packed with fiber. Plant-based, fiber-rich foods tend to promote a healthy and diverse gut microflora, which plays a key role in immune system function. In fact, recent research has found that gut bacteria are pivotal in the development of the immune system from day one. Keep your gut healthy by eating plenty of fiber-rich vegetables as well as whole grains, beans, and legumes, as well as probiotics, found in fermented dairy (yogurt and kefir), kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and miso.
Eat Protein at Every Meal
Your body requires an influx of amino acids everyday to support muscle growth and tissue structure, fuel enzymatic reactions, and build molecules involved in the immune system like antibodies. Because many of these immune system components are manufactured by your body as needed, it’s especially important to give your body enough protein when it’s fighting off an infection. Aim to eat 20-30 grams of protein at each meal—eggs, poultry, fish, beans, legumes, and nuts are all great options.
Eat What Sounds Good
Yes—even if it’s mac and cheese. When you’re sick, your body needs more calories than usual to fight off infection. Research has found that reducing your caloric intake both increases susceptibility to more infections and may lengthen the duration of a cold. So if nothing sounds good, reach for your favorite comfort food (of course, this doesn’t give you free reign to munch on cake and ice cream while you lay in bed—try to pick comfort foods that are also nourishing, like chicken soup).
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