Does food affect immune health?

Food truly does matter! And let me preface this by saying it is an absolute privilege to be able to choose the foods we eat, to have the ability to access many healthy foods (most of the time!) and experience the variety available. If you have the ability to make choices about what you eat, you are among the wealthy in this world.

Ready to dive into food and immune health?

While research studies on individual nutrients, like Vitamin C, E and Zinc, may not agree on whether high doses of these nutrients really benefit the immune system, the research is pretty clear that deficiencies in these and other key nutrients IS detrimental to the immune system. 

But how does deficiency happen? 

  1. Undereating – not getting enough calories in during the day
  2. Overeating – eating too many “empty” calories 
  3. Missing nutrients – not enough variety in what is eaten

So what do we need? Here is a quick list:

  • Protein (quality matters here too)
  • Fiber (all kinds)
  • Essential Fatty Acids (Omega 3 & 6)
  • Vitamins A, folic acid, B6, B12, C, D, E
  • Minerals: Zinc, Copper, Iron and Selenium

The above list has been shown in various studies to be essential for immune function and a deficiency in any of them reduces immune function(1). 

But how do you get all of these nutrients, now that you know you need them? The quick and simple answer is to eat a variety of whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, quality protein, legumes (beans & lentils), whole grains and healthy fats. The more you include whole foods in your diet, the more you will begin to crowd out the processed, convenience foods that many of us rely on. Focus on including ingredients in your meals and snacks that are easily identifiable. For example, a sweet potato or onion is pretty easy to identify whereas maltodextrin or monosodium glutamate would be pretty tough to single out as a food in your pantry or fridge. 

Feel overwhelmed?

If you do nothing else, adding greens (think swiss chard, spinach, kale, collard greens, arugula, etc) to your meals everyday has the potential to make a profound difference in your health (2). Greens are the most nutrient dense food with the lowest calories – total win win. So if one change is what seems manageable right now, choose to add greens to every meal (or as often as you can!). 

And while food can positively affect the immune system, it doesn’t stop there! The body is a complex and interrelated system, what is good for one part of the body is generally good for the whole body. This includes mental health. In a couple of weeks I’ll be talking specifically about food and mental health. It’s a pretty exciting topic as new research is showing a variety of ways that what we eat can influence our mood and even depression. 

In the meantime, include as many whole foods in your diet as you can, finding creative and tasty ways to enjoy a variety each day. Need help with that? I’m here for you – check out my recipes or attend a cooking class – making healthy delicious is what I’m all about!

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  1. Calder, Philip C., and Samantha Kew. “The Immune System: a Target for Functional Foods?” British Journal of Nutrition, vol. 88, no. S2, 2002, doi:10.1079/bjn2002682.
  2. Aune, Dagfinn, et al. “Fruit and Vegetable Intake and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Total Cancer and All-Cause Mortality—a Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Studies.” International Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 46, no. 3, 22 Feb. 2017, pp. 1029–1056., doi:10.1093/ije/dyw319.


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