We all are more focused on our health right now so we can continue to care for our families, neighbors and communities.
Indeed, experts say a healthy diet plays a vital role in helping our immune system work like it should, protecting our bodies from viruses and other germs that can make us sick.
Maybe you’ve seen ads or social media posts promoting “immunity boosting” foods.
In reality, we can’t get all the nutrients our immune system needs — in the appropriate amounts — from a single food, says Ruth Litchfield, a professor of food science and human nutrition at Iowa State University.
Our immune system requires a wide variety of nutrients from different foods — including fruits and vegetables, dairy and protein-rich meats and poultry — to function effectively.
“Because the immune system is very complex, there is no one nutrient that’s going to make your immune system either very good or very poor,” Litchfield says. “It’s a combination of nutrients, and you can’t get all the nutrients that our immune system needs from just one food or one food group. It’s in a variety of foods.”
Litchfield says a few of the many nutrients that are important to a healthy immune system include protein, essential fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E, folic acid, zinc, iron, copper and selenium.
“You can’t get them all from just one food,” Litchfield says. “Variety is really key.”
A healthy diet should include whole grains, fruits and vegetables (canned, frozen or fresh are all nutritious), and high-quality sources of protein, including animal-based proteins and dairy, Litchfield says.
Animal-based proteins, including real beef and pork, are good sources of zinc, iron and B vitamins, which support a healthy immune system.
Litchfield says studies have found that in populations struggling with malnutrition, small amounts of high-quality animal-based proteins can significantly improve their immune status.
Specifically, the adaptive immune system, which includes T cells, B cells and immunoglobulins, requires protein for cell development, Litchfield says.
When you get a vaccination or are exposed to a virus in the environment, your adaptive immune system kicks in to detect and respond next time your body is exposed to that same virus.
Animal-based proteins provide specific amino acids, such as glutamine and arginine, that are required for a healthy immune system, Litchfield adds.
While you can get protein from plant sources, Litchfield says animal-based proteins are unique because they are complete proteins that provide all the essential amino acids that our bodies need.
In comparison, plant-based proteins are considered incomplete because they lack one or more essential amino acids, Litchfield says.
If you choose to take a dietary supplement to fill any nutritional gaps, Litchfield recommends a general multivitamin instead of a single nutrient supplement, so you don’t take more of a nutrient than your body needs.
For example, if you don’t get enough iron, your immune system won’t function at its optimal level, Litchfield explains. But if you consume too much iron, say from a supplement, that can impair your immune system.
“It’s all about variety and moderation,” Litchfield says. “Eat a variety of foods from the different food groups, always in moderation. Don’t try to go overboard on one particular food item or food group.”
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