Cooking to Support Your Immune System
Wondering what you can eat to help stay healthy? We've got you covered with 11 immune-boosting foods and 22 delicious recipes!
Marisa Moore is a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and communications and culinary nutrition expert. Her integrative and practical approach to food and wellness with science-based nutrition advice is regularly featured in leading media outlets. You can find her in front of and behind the camera as a media dietitian, on-camera talent, and content creator at marisamoore.com.
If you're like me, staying healthy is on my mind a lot these days. In these times of Covid-19, I want to do everything I can to support my body and keep it strong. Fortunately, you don't need to eat exotic superfoods to have a healthy diet! Many everyday foods deliver the nutrients necessary for a healthy immune system. So let's explore some of them here and see how easy and satisfying it is to eat the foods that our bodies naturally crave.
What foods are good for the immune system?
There is no one best food for the immune system. Instead, a wide variety of foods work in synergy to keep our immune system in tip-top shape. Leafy greens and other veggies, citrus, and garlic are a few key players that may be familiar, but we’ll cover a few lesser-known good-for-you foods, too, such as nuts and seeds and shellfish. Consider adding a few recipes with them to your meal plan this week.
Though healthy food is essential for optimal immune function, it’s only one part of the equation. Many other factors play a role. The best way to stay well is to avoid contact with sick people, wash your hands regularly, and practice good self-care. That includes getting adequate sleep and exercise and managing stress, in addition to maintaining a balanced diet.
1. Try some chicken soup
As usual, Grandma had it right. Chicken provides key nutrients including vitamin B6 and zinc, both important for immune function. Scientists also think that chicken soup might provide some mild anti-inflammatory benefits — and inflammation plays a role in many illnesses.
If you’re fending off a bug, it turns out there’s (okay, limited) research supporting chicken soup as a home remedy. And a few studies link zinc to shorter duration of the common cold. But chicken soup is also a great way to hydrate. Maybe it’s a placebo effect, but who doesn’t like cuddling up with a soothing, warm liquid? And that warmth might even give a feeling of a less stuffy nose — temporarily, anyway.
These are all good reasons to sip some chicken soup, but flavor might be tops! With that in mind, consider making your own bone broth or stock as a base for all kinds of soups; it may yield some additional gut and immune system benefits.
2. Make the most of miso
Miso is a fermented soybean paste. But it’s the probiotics (good bacteria that help maintain a healthy gut) in miso that help land it on this list. This Simple Miso Soup has the added benefit of garlic, onions, and kale — rock-star ingredients for a strong immune system.
Miso lends a lovely umami flavor, making it perfect for vegan and vegetarian soups and sauces. The paste (which is available at the grocery store with refrigerated foods) can also be whipped into glazes, dressings, and marinades for flavorful dishes like 15-Minute Miso Salmon. If you need more ideas, use up the rest of your miso tub with these inventive miso recipes.
3. Bring on the broccoli
Packed with antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and phytochemicals (plant compounds that may help protect against disease), broccoli is a fighter. Like other cruciferous vegetables, broccoli contains compounds that may offer protection from certain cancers. Enjoy this Garlic Roasted Broccoli as a side dish or as the base for a warm broccoli salad.
You can make the Best Vegan Broccoli Salad as a flavorful way to enjoy raw broccoli, which is higher in vitamin C than cooked. Made with soaked cashews for a creamy sauce, red grapes for sweetness, and almonds for crunch, this salad is perfect for lunch or for weekly meal prep!
4. Squeeze in some citrus
When you think about boosting the immune system, odds are that vitamin C (and orange juice) come to mind. And for good reason. Vitamin C is a key player in our body’s natural defenses and supports various cellular functions.
And citrus fruits are one of the best ways to get it. Oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit are all high in this essential vitamin. This Winter Citrus Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette (which you can make in other seasons, too) pulls together some of the tastiest citrus into a juicy and refreshing salad that’s ready in 15 minutes!
Because the body doesn’t store vitamin C, we need some every single day. Get a jump-start, and sweeten up the morning with an Orange Creamsicle Smoothie.
5. Brighten up with red bell peppers
Though citrus gets all the attention when it comes to vitamin C, you might be surprised to learn that a red bell pepper has twice the vitamin C of an orange! It’s true. (Strawberries, kiwis, and tomatoes are other excellent sources.) And with their sweet flavor, crisp texture, and vibrant color, bell peppers are the perfect addition to a variety of meals and snacks.
Toss a jar of roasted red peppers into a pot to make a quick Spanish Chickpea and Red Bell Pepper Soup for dinner that’s flavored with preserved lemon and smoked paprika.
Raw bell peppers retain more vitamin C than cooked. Get the most vitamin C from your peppers by eating them raw, maybe with Tahini Sauce for dunking. Bonus: If you pair them with a healthy fat such as tahini, you’ll boost vitamin A absorption from the peppers too.
6. Eat your leafy greens
We all know that dark leafy greens such as spinach and kale are nutrition powerhouses. The same nutrients that make them generally healthy — namely, vitamin C and vitamin A in the form of beta carotene — also deliver immune health benefits. Cooking greens and adding a fat such as extra-virgin olive oil or avocado makes the beta carotene easier to absorb.
This Spinach and Green Lentil Dahl recipe is an easy way to add more greens to the week. It brings together several immune-enhancing ingredients including garlic and turmeric.
For something with a bit more crunch, Easy Kale Chips make the perfect snack!
7. Go (shell)fish
A serving of oysters delivers more than 6 times your daily value for zinc, which plays a key role in immune function. How about trying Oyster Stew, made with a jar of oysters (no shucking required)?
Most of us aren’t eating oysters every day (and it’s not actually recommended, since too much zinc can negatively impact immune function). But luckily there are many other sources, including crab, lobster, beef, and pork. These Healthy Baked Crab Cakes are a flavor-packed way to add shellfish to the menu. Pair them up with sauteed spinach or roasted broccoli for a complete meal. Vegetarians can get zinc from pumpkin seeds and cashews, chickpeas and other beans, yogurt, and other dairy foods.
8. Grate in garlicky goodness
Garlic gets part of its immune-boosting properties from allicin, a pungent compound created when garlic is crushed, chewed, or in the case of Garlic Roasted Brussels Sprouts, minced. Seasoned with 3 cloves of garlic, the side dish recipe delivers a flavorful punch. You’ll want seconds — so go ahead and double up!
In the pursuit of wellness and flavor, always stock heads of garlic as a pantry staple. Then you’ll be ready to make Garlic Rosemary Roasted Baby Potatoes for brunch or dinner.
9. Get rooted in spices
Ginger is a popular go-to when it comes to nausea but this root’s anti-inflammatory properties make it ideal for supporting the immune system too. Fresh ginger delivers flavor, heat, and a lot of spice, all super refreshing in a Ginger and Greens Smoothie. Luckily, when stored properly (that is without excess moisture), ginger will keep in the refrigerator for weeks. It can also be frozen so you need never be without it.
Like ginger, turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. Though more research is needed on how turmeric (and its active compound, curcumin) impacts health, this golden spice has been used for ages medicinally and is a key ingredient in curries all over the world. Try it in the vibrant Golden Broccoli Soup.
10. Nuts and seeds, please
Sunflower seeds, almonds, and other nuts and seeds are a good source of vitamin E, which works as an antioxidant and may support immune function in a major way. Because vitamin E is best absorbed with fat, nuts are an ideal way to get it. And don’t forget nut butters. Peanut butter adds creaminess, depth and an irresistible nutty flavor as the key ingredient in traditional African Peanut Stew.
Of course you can also enjoy nuts and seeds as a snack, sprinkled on oatmeal, or incorporated into a recipe for crunch and nutrition. These Spicy 5-Minute Toasted Almonds are one way to switch things up.
11. Scoop on yogurt
Yogurt provides probiotics (a convenient way to nourish your gut), and it’s also a good source of vitamin D, both of which may strengthen our defenses. The nonfat Greek yogurt in the delicious Peanut Butter Banana Smoothie provides plenty of protein, too, without being overly caloric.
As mentioned, food is but one part of staying well. If cooking feels at all overwhelming, explore ways to save time. One idea: These Meal Prep Fruit and Yogurt Parfaits will keep in the fridge up to 4 to 5 days.
As you can see, there are many delicious ways to bolster your body’s natural defenses, right? Dig in!
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