By: Sarah Remmer, Registered Dietician
Wondering which foods help to boost the immune system? You’re not alone, especially now with COVID-19 dominating the news, and circulating claims of immune-boosting foods, supplements and concoctions that will help ward off every sickness (including COVID). Well, let’s get one thing straight right away: We don’t actually want to “boost” the immune system with supplements or specific foods. The claim that a food or nutrient is immune-boosting is misleading and scientifically inaccurate. What?! Well, a “boost” implies heightened action, which is not what you want – an overactive immune system is linked with autoimmune diseases such as lupus or multiple sclerosis. Let’s be clear: “Immune boosting” is a marketing term, not a medical term.
Instead, it’s important to focus on supporting your immune system so it functions normally. There are lots of things we can do to support immunity, such as getting enough sleep, being physically active, minimizing stress and eating nutritious foods. Made with Local values high quality, whole foods-based nutrition, and produces products that help to support immunity such as oats, almonds, peanuts, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruit.
The immune system plays a key role in your overall health: it defends against viruses and bacteria that cause illness. Certain nutrients, such as zinc, selenium, iron, protein, vitamins A, C, D and E are critical for the function of immune cells. Which foods contain these important nutrients? Here are my top 7:
I’m often asked which nut to eat and I say, “mix it up!” Each nut has a different nutritional value, so choose a variety for the best immune support. Almonds, peanuts and hazelnuts contain vitamin E, which helps increase T-cell count (T-cells directly kill infected host cells and regulate immune responses). Walnuts boast the most omega-3 fat. Enjoy some trail mix, or add nuts to salads, pasta or cereal. Or enjoy them in a bar or energy ball! Some of Made with Local’s Real Food bars contain almond butters, as well peanut butter, both loaded with immune supporting nutrients! Fun fact: peanuts technically aren’t nuts (their legumes) but they do contain immune supporting nutrients such as Vitamin E and zinc!
Berries stand out for immune function because of their trinity of fibre, vitamin C and potent antioxidants. A large part of your immune system is located in the intestines – and there is where berries do their best work. Studies show that berries support the immune system and are beneficial gut microbiota. Choose fresh or frozen blueberries, strawberries or blackberries, and add them to yogurt and oatmeal, or eat them as a nourishing snack. Throw them into your child’s lunch or top their yogurt parfaits with them!
Embrace salads, but bump up the colour way past pale iceberg. Choose kale, spinach, chard, arugula or collards. Leafy greens also boast high levels of carotenoids (similar to beta carotene), and have similar immune-supporting effects. Kids not a fan of salads? Use leafy greens in smoothies, muffins or stir-fry them with garlic, ginger and a ribbon of olive oil for a delicious side dish.
Seeds and seed-containing foods are a go-to for school lunches because they’re school safe. I choose sunflower seeds for their high levels of selenium and vitamin E (both explained above). Pumpkin, hemp and sesame seeds all contain zinc, a mineral that helps the immune system fight off invading bacteria and viruses. I love that MWL’s both pumpkin and sunflower seeds. I use their granola bar mixes religiously to make homemade school-safe recipes like bars, bites, muffins and granola! I also add seeds to smoothies, yogurt and salads, and love this snack: spread pumpkin or sunflower seed butter plus a bit of honey on apples, then sprinkle with hemp seeds!
Oats contain immune-supporting nutrients like selenium and zinc. But they also contain a special type of fibre called beta-glucan, which increases immune defense by enhancing macrophages (cells that detect and destroy bacteria and viruses). Start your day with oatmeal (my favourite is MWL’s Loaded Oats!), or whirl whole oats in your food processor to make your own oat flour. The main ingredient in MWL’s Granola Mix is oats, which I love; it makes for a perfect base for muffins, granola bars and protein bites.
Choose fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, trout or sardines. They contain a winning combination of vitamin D and omega-3 fats, which both support the immune system. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection, and omega-3 fats are part of the structure of all immune cells. Try canned tuna in a sandwich; enjoy some sashimi or a sushi hand roll; or try a bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon or trout.
Protein is needed for proper immune system functioning, and eggs are the gold standard for their high-quality protein. When scientists measure protein quality – known as “biological value,” it’s often evaluated compared to eggs, which are given the perfect score of 100. So, scramble up a few eggs or tuck into an omelet. In addition to protein, eggs are also a source of immune-supporting selenium and vitamins A, D and E.
In addition to what you DO focus on nutrition-wise, it’s also important to point out the foods that you may want to limit. Ultra-processed foods, such as candy, packaged treats and snacks, soft drinks, fast food and salty snacks lack beneficial nutrients, and can impair the production immune cells and antibodies. Yet another reason why I love Made with Local products – they are minimally processed and nutrient-dense! Of course, treats are fine on occasion, but for immune system support, the 10 foods above should be eaten most often!
Made with Local is offering some fun, value-packed “bundles” on their online shop right now, which all contain their new recipe book (with recipes that I’ve contributed) using their Granola Bar Mix. The Back to Basics Bundle and their Back to School Bundle offer a variety of granola bar mixes plus the recipe book, and their Made with Love Bundle contains a mix of Bars and mixes!