The Reality of Eating for Immunity
Spoiler alert! Those incessant emails offering the secret sauce or supplement for 100% strength immunity are 100% false. Time to rely upon science-based, expert-approved foods and supplements that actually work to support your immune system.
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Let’s set the record straight. If you’re on the hunt for the one single food or supplement to use to fight off viruses, you’ll be searching long after this pandemic has ended. That’s because there’s simply no one food or supplement that serves to do it all. In totality, however, a diet packed with nutrient-rich foods is one of your best allies in the fight against whatever ails you. Here’s a look at some powerful foods and nutrients to add to your plate.
What We Can Control
When it comes to the vigor of our immune system, research tells us that many factors determine our defenses. Some of these factors—genes and gender, for example—are beyond our control. Other factors—nutrition and exercise—are not only within our control, as runners we’re already on the path towards stronger barricades.
While intensive and high-volume exercise may break us down, regular, moderate exercise serves to boost the immune system, thereby lowering the risk of infection. And when we return home from our run, ready to nutritionally recover, our plate makeup dictates the direction our immunity takes in the fight against disease. Food serves to help or hamper us as specific nutritional factors are needed for the optimal performance of our immune system. A variety of food components are needed to promote gut health, protect against damage by free radicals, and act as building blocks for our immune cells. Let’s explore what the plate makeup should look like as we look to heighten our defenses and stay strong year-round.
Our gut does more than digest and absorb food; it houses a sizable population of immune cells and is argued to be the most important organ for immunity. The gut is packed with microbiota that either need to be fed to grow and strengthen, or need to be deprived in order to weaken.
That’s where pro- and pre-biotics come in. Probiotics are friendly organisms that populate your gut. When dosed correctly, research tells us that these friendly bacteria or yeast might help decrease the risk of catching a common cold or respiratory tract infection. But which ones should we look for in foods or supplements? Data from multiple studies, including ones involving athletes and active individuals, has found that taking a probiotic with lactobacillus or bifidobacterium strains might help decrease the frequency and duration of these infections.
Simply popping a probiotic supplement now and again isn’t a great strategy, however. Certainly, adding in probiotics regularly is helpful. Nutrition expert Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD advises that if you want to maintain excellent gut health, eat a diet loaded with colorful plant foods, quality protein, and natural sources of probiotics. Spano recommends adding yogurt with live and active cultures, Kiefer, tempeh (a delicious fermented soybean product), miso soup, homemade sauerkraut, and kimchi to your daily plate.
When I asked Spano, a nutrition consultant to several professional teams, which foods she would recommend adding to our diets to increase immunity, if she could only choose a few, she noted that shiitake and maitake mushrooms would have a place. These mushrooms have high levels of vitamin D when they are exposed to sunlight while growing. Vitamin D serves to regulate immune system function, and higher blood levels of vitamin D are associated with decreased incidence of upper respiratory tract infections and fewer symptomatic days.
Mushrooms are also a natural source of beta glucans, which further support immune system functioning and may also help reduce the incidence of upper respiratory tract infections. While adding these gems to your plate is a good choice, note that the efficacy found in studies involves large doses of beta-glucans—like the amounts found in supplements—so you might consider adding in a daily dose.
More Protein, Please
Finally, if your protein intake is pitiful and you’re already at an immune disadvantage, you’ll be hampering the positive effects of essential micronutrients and other functional foods. While protein serves to build muscle and help runners recover and repair from exercise, this powerful macronutrient also serves many other functions throughout the body, including supporting the immune system. Protein is a critical component of antibodies and cell structure, including powerful white blood cells. Skimp on this nutrient and you’ll find yourself predisposed to feelings of malaise, lethargy, and reduced immune function. But, in addition to adding in protein-rich foods to your daily diet, opt for choices that provide the added bonus of immune supporting micronutrients.
Aim for protein intake across your day, and a serving for all meals and snacks. Choose a variety of foods rich in protein and other nutrients, such as oysters and other seafoods, legumes, and beef, which all pack protein as well as being excellent sources of zinc—another immune boosting powerhouse. Or try my go-to, a protein shake.
Powerhouse Nutrients: Vitamins A, C, and Zinc
Protect the integrity of your first line of defense—your skin—with zinc. It’s not only a critical component in the production of new immune cells, zinc deficiency can impact skin health, delaying wound healing and suppressing overall immune system functioning. Spano adds that zinc gluconate taken within 24 hours after the onset of common cold symptoms can help reduce duration and severity, especially if a sore throat is present. Spano recommends sucking on zinc gluconate lozenges to help decrease the duration and intensity of symptoms.
The research on vitamin C supplementation for boosting immune functioning and preventing illness in athletes is, at best, uncertain, but we know that this crucial antioxidant serves to protect immune cells and keep our defenses intact. Reasonable supplementation certainly won’t hurt, and given that the typical American diet contains many gaps in essential nutrient intake, supplementation and consumption of fortified foods is often bargain-priced insurance! This water-soluble nutrient can be found in colorful fruits and vegetables, and Vitamin C consumed in excess is excreted.
Vitamin A, crucial for skin integrity and mucus membranes, is a star player for immune health. The top source of Vitamin A in the US is dairy, and you can also get a boost from sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, and other deeply colored produce. This fat-soluble vitamin can also be found in most multivitamin supplements.
Spano notes that given how many Americans are short in a number of vitamins and minerals including nutrients important for immune health such as iron, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin A, she recommends most people take a quality multivitamin mineral supplement daily, or almost daily.
Pivot from Crisis to Consistency
It’s time to pivot from urgently adding in immune boosting foods as crisis management to considering the power of our plates year-round. Every bite has the power to impact health, so work 24/7/365 to include more color, more purposeful choices, more nutrients to your plate. This way, rather than stressfully playing catch up, you’ll be wisely proactive and equipped with a line of defense in place thanks to the healthy habits of running and optimal nutrition.
Pamela Nisevich Bede MS, RD is a nutrition consultant at Swim, Bike, Run, Eat! LLC and the author of Sweat. Eat. Repeat.