What Foods Help Your Immune System?

Greenletes / Sports Nutrition / What Foods Help Your Immune System?

Last updated on February 28th, 2021 at 10:22 am

Make sure you eat these vitamins to build a healthy immune system. Eating foods rich in Vitamin C, A, E, probiotics and water can help you stay healthy.

It often feels like there is a lot out of your control when it comes to avoiding germs and staying healthy. One thing you always can control is maintaining a healthy diet to boost your immune system.

foods to boost immune system

Everyone has an opinion on the “miracle cures” for the common cold, flu, or Coronavirus, but which foods really make a difference, and do you need supplements to reap the benefits?

What can you do to strengthen your immune system?

First, let me say that no one food or small change in your routine will “boost” your immune system. The key to overall immune health is living a healthy lifestyle. During cold and flu season or an outbreak of the Coronavirus, there are several measures you can take to stay as healthy as possible.

First, eating a well balanced diet rich in fruits in vegetables is one of the best ways you can strengthen your immune system. There are several key vitamins that contribute to immune health, which I will get to in a minute.

Besides eating well, it’s important to exercise regularly (30 minutes per day for 5 days each week), drink alcohol in moderation, get plenty of quality sleep, reduce stress and wash your hands (for 20 seconds!) frequently.

Important nutrients for a healthy immune system

Now that we know the importance of a good diet for a strong immune system, where do we begin? Vitamin C, zinc, probiotics, vitamin A, vitamin E and water are some of the most essential nutrients to focus on.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C can ward off infection, help to promote the creation of antibodies that combat illness, support wound healing, and may even reduce the duration of the common cold. An added benefit? Vitamin C has been shown to decrease inflammation linked with exercise and running!

vitamin c for immune system

For adults, the recommended daily intake is between 75-90 mg. Citrus fruits, strawberries (1 cup provides 98 mg), papaya and red bell peppers are all fantastic sources of this powerhouse nutrient.


Zinc isn’t that easy to come by, and research suggests that not eating enough can negatively affect the immune system. It’s found in oysters (which contain more zinc per serving than any other food), red meat, whole grains, nuts and chickpeas. This nutrient promotes wound healing, protein synthesis and immune function.

oysters for zinc & immune system

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for zinc is between 8-11 mg. But research suggests that taking a zinc acetate lozenge with 13.3 milligrams zinc can reduce the duration of cold symptoms.


Probiotics, the “good” bacteria in your gut, are beneficial for many reasons, including the fact that they can defend against any harmful pathogens you might consume. Did you know that 70% of the body’s immune system lives in the gut? [Learn more about probiotics and how they protect the entire body.]

probiotics for immune system

Probiotics are abundant in fermented foods, like yogurt, kombucha, miso, kimchi, kefir, and sauerkraut.

Vitamin A (Beta-Carotene)

Vitamin A also plays a role in the immune system. Specifically, this vitamin helps with the development of the immune system and plays a role in how the immune system responds to foreign substances. 

sweet potatoes for vitamin a

The recommendation for vitamin A is between 700-900 mcg RAE (retinol activity equivalent). One mcg RAE is equivalent to 12 mcg of dietary beta-carotene. Sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, eggs, tomatoes, spinach, cantaloupe, and carrots are all high in vitamin A.

Vitamin E (Alpha-Tocopherol)

A fat-soluble vitamin, vitamin E is an antioxidant that works to neutralize free radicals in the body. In relation to immune system, Vitamin E influences T cells, which play a role in immune system response.

water for immune system

The RDA for vitamin A is 15 mg per day. The effectiveness of Vitamin E supplements is still not known, but Vitamin E is abundant in many foods. Incorporate nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts), sunflower seeds, and green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli) to increase the vitamin E in your diet.


Staying hydrated is always important, but especially so when you’re fighting an illness. In addition, hydration levels can maintain the mucous membrane in the nose, which keeps harmful substances out.

water for immune health

Try to drink an additional 1-2 cups of water to help your immune system function at its peak performance. Drinking tea or seltzer, as well as eating fruits and vegetables also contribute to hydration.

Should you take supplements to increase your immune system?

Generally, the recommendation is that as long as you are consuming a well-rounded diet rich in fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, fiber and vegetables, you do not need a supplement. In fact, the body absorbs nutrients better from foods than from the forms found in supplements.

t is also important to know that mega-doses of certain vitamins (like vitamin C) can actually be harmful, and cause side-effects such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and headaches. Because vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin, any excess is excreted in the urine, rather than stored in your body. Stick with whole foods, which are often filled with numerous beneficial vitamins, minerals, and fiber, rather than supplements!

Do athletes have weakened immune systems?

Athletes, especially distance runners, often have a weakened immune system because of the physical stress placed on their bodies during training. They are also at greater risk of contracting upper respiratory illnesses.

do athletes have a weakened immune system?

Because of this, it is even more important that runners consume a well-balanced diet rich in the nutrients mentioned above to keep them healthy, especially before race day!

Here are some delicious recipes featuring these immune strengthening foods.


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I’m Natalie Rizzo, an NYC-based Registered Dietitian.

My mission is to help everyday athletes fuel their fitness with plants.

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