We all know about the types of food we should be eating, but most people aren’t perfect, and don’t stick to a healthy diet as many days a week as they should. It’s often not until we fall sick that we start to regret our choices – we shouldn’t have eaten that, should have done more of this, and shouldn’t have gone to a certain place where we think we picked up the bug. In general, we hunker down, take as many cold meds as we can, and stick it out.
But is there something we can do? Fortunately, yes! By eating the 6 foods I’ll cover below, you can give your immune system a much-needed boost and help it fight off infection much faster than it would if you fill up on junk food.
Top 6 Foods to Eat When You Get Sick
Fermented Foods & Drinks
Fermented foods and drinks like kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, kefir, and kombucha. These foods are filled with healthy bacteria and probiotics which are important because the gut accounts for 70% of your immune function. So, by consuming foods with natural probiotics, you're maintaining good gut health by delivering natural components that optimize your gut and bolster your immune system.
Whole citrus fruits
Eat whole citrus fruits that are high in vitamin C. Vitamin C helps protect the mucosa of our nasal and respiratory pathways, which are where we usually get exposed to a virus. The vitamin C helps protect us from the first line of defense, which is where the virus would enter our bodies, namely the mucosal linings and the respiratory linings. So if we breathe in a virus but there are high levels of vitamin C in our bodies, we're less likely to become infected.
One thing to note is the type of food and drinks in which we seek vitamin C. Many recommend grabbing a bottle of orange juice, but I recommend having the whole fruit instead.
Orange juice contains a high amount of sugar, but the whole fruit still contains the fiber of the fruit, this decreases the sugar’s impact on the body. This is worth remembering as we know that sugar oxidizes and oxidation decreases immunity. So, in short, juices can be deceptively unhealthy, even though they're giving us that vitamin C. The juice’s sugar is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream at a high dose and the oxidation that it causes is not worth the vitamin C we get from the juice.
Eat Foods High in Zinc
Foods high in zinc, including seeds, nuts, beans, mushrooms, and spinach. Just like vitamin C, zinc is also important for a solid immune system. It improves the T cell function, which is the part of the immune system which fights off viruses. The foods we just mentioned don't contain much sugar, so we don’t need to worry about consuming something that will cause a spike in energy and a crash later. When we eat foods such as seeds, nuts, and beans, we're getting the benefit of the high zinc doses without the drawbacks of sugary food.
Eat Herbs and Spices
Herbs and roots, such as turmeric, can increase the body’s antioxidant capacity. Black pepper, which contains a compound called Piperine, can reduce inflammation. These herbs and roots are vital in the prevention of viral replication. The way a virus attacks our body is through replication.
But herbs and roots like turmeric, quercetin, rutin, and hesperidin are known to block that viral replication and improve our defenses against a virus.
Healthy Fat Sources
Olive oil, a healthy fat, is a potent antioxidant and been documented to prevent RSV, respiratory syncytial virus, infection. Olive oil is rich in beneficial fatty acids and its antioxidant components are biologically active, making them helpful in protecting us against viruses.
Healthy Protein Sources
Healthy sources of protein. Think about it: people all over the world eat chicken soup when they’re unwell because it’s an easy, comforting, and tasty way of getting your amino acids. Miso is a vegetarian broth option. It is a delicious salty Japanese seasoning made with fermented soybeans. It comes in the form of a paste and is extremely healthy for the gut, plus it contains all those valuable probiotics we mentioned earlier.
Other sources of amino acids may come from a protein shake, tofu, fish, or chicken, meat or eggs and are necessary for our immunity. Our antibodies are made from peptides produced from the protein that we consume. So if we're low in protein, we’re more likely to have a compromised immune system. As a result, we’re more likely to become infected by a virus and experience severe symptoms than someone with a healthier lifestyle.
Whether you’re trying to prevent a cold or you already have the sniffles, your diet is one of the most effective ways of staying healthy. Eating the right foods gives the body the best possible chance of fighting off anything nasty that comes our way. With a balanced diet consisting of fresh produce, protein, fermented foods, nuts, and some spices, you’re well on your way to protecting your immune system against viruses this winter.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.