Want to do everything you can to keep colds at bay? Abi Jackson finds out how to ward off winter bugs through your stomach.
What does an immune-supporting diet look like? Here are some top tips...
“A balanced immune system requires a balanced diet, hitting all the macronutrients and micronutrients to support the metabolic and functional demands of the immune system,” says immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi. This means eating a wide range of foods, including fibre, which is vital.
“Adequate fibre and phytonutrient (found in fruit and veg) intake nourishes the microbiome, keeping our barriers to infection robust,” says Macciochi. This, she explains, allows key protectors like the gut and lungs produce bioactive compounds with broad-ranging health benefits, including boosting the number and health of our immune cells.
“Even with a healthy diet, our nutrition is only ever as good as our gut microbiome,” says Macciochi.
“The bugs in our gut are responsible for the production and bioactivity of many of the nutrients from the food we eat. A healthy microbiome is a diverse one and relies on us eating a diverse diet.”
While nothing beats a good diet, the microbiome-feeding pre and probiotic supplements industry is booming. Our microbiome is unique to each of us, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t really work, but some high-quality supplements could have some benefits. “Stick to preparations that contain well-researched bacteria strains — such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium — in a dose of at least 10bn bacteria per serving,” says nutritionist Rob Hobson.
Getting the right balance of vitamins and minerals is essential for optimal overall health and function, but certain nutrients may play a more direct role in helping us fight bugs. “Vitamin E, iron, zinc, and selenium are all required for the production of antibodies that fight infections. Vitamin C and zinc have been associated with the reduced risk of infection and length of colds,” explains Hobson.
Oils, nuts, nut butters and seeds will help with vitamin E. “Extra virgin olive oil is the best oil to use on a daily basis and contributes to vitamin E intake.” adds Hobson. “Nuts and seeds can be blended into smoothies or sprinkled over roasted winter veg or frittatas. Nut butters also make a good breakfast spread on wholemeal bagels, topped with banana.”
Wholegrains and wheats (oats, brown rice and bulgur wheat) are loaded with selenium, meanwhile. And when it comes to vitamin C, red peppers, citrus fruit, berries, kale, broccoli, and potatoes are all strong contenders.
When berries go out of season, Hobson suggests using frozen ones (ideal for jazzing up porridge, blitzing in a smoothie or even the odd winter crumble). “Dark green, leafy veg like kale are widely available in winter and can be added to soups, stews and casseroles.”
Shellfish, eggs, dairy, pulses, tofu, red meat, and wholegrains all aid zinc intake.
Low iron is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies, and with plant-based diets increasingly popular, it’s easy to fall short, as red meat is one of the best-known sources of the stuff.
However, it is possible to get enough iron withouteating red meat — beans, eggs, pulses, lentils, and oats all also pack an iron punch.
“Serve non-meat sources of iron with vitamin C, which helps the body absorb this nutrient,” suggests Hobson.
Beans also help keep protein levels up — key, alongside iron, in stable energy levels and overall healthy functioning.
“Dried spices often get overlooked but they are a rich source of iron,” says Hobson. Spices contain a range of antioxidants, and there are good reasons why turmeric is setting the gold standard in ‘superfoods’.
“As well as being anti-inflammatory, turmeric is a good inhibitor to vital entry into our cells,” says Macciochi. “Adding this spice regularly to meals could be useful to ward off infections.”
A daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement during the autumn and winter months is recommended for adults.
Why? Vitamin D is vital for keeping bones, teeth, and muscles healthy, and just generally help keep us fighting fit — but most of our vitamin D is created by skin exposure to sunlight, and from October until early March, there simply isn’t enough of the ‘right’ sort of sunshine to meet our needs (even when the skies are bright).
While foods like salmon, mushrooms, and eggs are good dietary sources, diet alone won’t provide all the vitamin D we really need.
“Opt for a supplement containing vitamin D3, which is the most useable form of this nutrient,” says Hobson.
Generally speaking, the jury is out on whether we ‘need’ other supplements, but there might be times when topping up with a high-quality supplement is a good idea. Hobson suggests a multivitamin as a good all-rounder.