For a Fighting Chance, Strive for 5

February 22, 2021

When it comes to your immunity, you are what you eat. But you can’t depend on just a handful of vitamins to get the job done. If you want to power up your immune system, it’s better to bypass the pharmacy in favor of the grocery store.

“Our diets play a huge role in protecting us from disease,” says Amy Bliz, a clinical dietitian with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg. “To support a healthy immune system, you need to consume the proper combination of vitamins and minerals every day. It’s important to focus on obtaining these nutrients through a well-balanced diet rather than taking supplements.”

Trust Your Gut

The gut makes up a large and important part of the immune system. The better the balance of healthy gut bacteria, the more robust and efficient your immune system is at fighting infections.

“Fruits, vegetables, grains and yogurts contain beneficial types of special fiber and microbes that boost healthy gut bacteria,” says Bliz. “These whole foods, among others, also contain vitamins A, C and D, as well as zinc, which are critical nutrients for strengthening our gut and immune systems.”

Vitamin A helps in the production and function of white blood cells. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, aids with destroying free radicals and supports the body’s natural immune response. Vitamin D works to prevent inflammation. Zinc defends against invading germs. Vitamins C and D also may play a role in preventing pneumonia and respiratory infections.

Support Group

Fortunately, these essential nutrients are found in a variety of plant and animal foods. Bliz suggests piling plates high with at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

Keep your options open. “Variety in what you eat is as important as how much you consume,” she says. “The vitamins, minerals and amount of fiber differ among plant foods, as does their impact on gut microbes. Make sure to eat a diverse diet so you get an assortment of nutrients.”

While seasonal, vine-ripe produce is always the best choice, don’t worry if you can’t find high-quality fresh fruits and veggies. Frozen is fine. “Manufacturers freeze produce at its peak ripeness, so the nutritional value is similar to fresh,” says Bliz.

Nutritional No-Nos

A diet filled with refined sugar, processed foods and fatty red meat can cause the immune system to sputter. “Eating too much salt, sugar and unhealthy fats can result in chronic inflammation,” says Bliz. “Inflammation hinders the body’s response to viruses and other germs.”

Like processed food, less is more when it comes to alcohol as well. “Drinking too much can lead to increased respiratory infections and impaired immune responses,” says Bliz, who suggests moderation -- up to one drink a day for women and two per day for men.

Making the right food choices gives the immune system a fighting chance against a variety of viruses. But it is not a magic bullet.

“Nothing you eat will totally guarantee you won’t get sick,” says Bliz. “But consuming a nutrient-dense, varied diet gives the immune system and gut the best opportunity to defend you.”

Self-Serve Sizing

When striving for five plant-based servings, here’s how to tell what’s enough.

  • One fruit serving = A medium-sized piece of fruit or a half cup of fresh, frozen or canned fruit packed in water or 100 percent juice
  • One veggie serving = 1 cup of raw, leafy vegetables; a half cup of fresh, frozen or canned veggies; or a half cup of vegetable juice
  • Strive for 5 Food Choices

    For meals that pack a powerful punch, find your favorite dining companions from the following list:

  • Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, green leafy vegetables, cantaloupe, pumpkin, red peppers, dairy products, eggs, fortified cereals
  • Vitamin C: Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cantaloupe, citrus fruits, kiwi, peppers, strawberries, tomatoes
  • Vitamin D: Eggs, fatty fish, plant-based milks, fortified cereals, dairy products, orange juice
  • Zinc: Beans, peas, beef, dairy products, fortified cereals, nuts, whole grains, poultry, seafood
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