Do certain foods really boost your immune system?

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The internet is packed with articles promising ways to protect yourself against coronavirus…but can you really eat to beat the illness?

As you ready yourself to brave the coronavirus supermarket sweep, you’re probably wondering whether certain foods might give you a better chance of fighting off the virus. After all, food is supposed to be nature’s medicine. If we load up on honey and lemon to recover from a humble cold, there must be some culinary heroes to help our systems better cope with other illnesses.

While eating certain foods is not going to stave off coronavirus, can any help you boost your immune system and in turn prepare your body to fight off the virus?

It’s not as simple as that.

The idea that any foods can boost your immunity “is a bit of a myth,” explains Nichola Ludlam-Raine, a specialist registered dietitian.

“The only way to truly ‘boost’ your immune system is to have a vaccine. You can, however, support your immune system by eating a healthy and balanced diet which involves eating plenty of ‘natural’ colour (whole foods), whole grains, protein and healthy fats.”

While eating a colourful, balanced diet can help to support the body’s ability to fight off infection, other factors are equally important.

Getting enough sleep, stress management and moderate-intensity exercise are all crucial.

Oh, and eating enough is also vital.

Nichola explains: “One of the most important dietary aspects when it comes to supporting your immune system is to eat an adequate amount of calories and to not be in a calorie deficit; now is certainly not the time for unnecessary restriction!”

These are unprecedented, scary times, and you might find that nutrition is lower down your priority list.

That’s OK, says registered associate nutritionist, Isa Robinson.

woman eating cereal healthy fitness bananas
Eating breakfast sets your hormone rhythm for the day.

Staying safe should be our ultimate priority and ultimately, protecting ourselves from the virus is about following the government’s advice – not freaking out about what you’re having for dinner.

“For the most part, protecting yourself from the virus is going to be about the government’s advice, social solidarity, washing hands and being compassionate to others and to yourself,” she tells Stylist.

“Maintaining regular, balanced and for the most part ‘fun’ eating, should cover your bases.

“The nutritional minutiae and silver bullet cures are diet culture at its finest.”

So what does she recommend we try to eat? Well, it’s all about trying to maintain a balanced diet with a good mix of carbs, fats and proteins with plenty of fruit and veg.

“Canned and frozen still work perfectly well, and will last longer than fresh. Many carbs can be kept in store cupboards e.g. rice, pasta, oats, whilst fridge and freezer space may be helpful for keeping other items cool.

“Please don’t be afraid of ‘processed foods’ like canned fish, jars of pesto, packets of biscuits, which are likely going to add flavour and nutrient bombs when we need them! Fun foods (e.g. the foods that simply bring us joy) are also important. It’s not the worst thing in the world to self-soothe with a bit of chocolate right now.”

The key is making sure that you’ve got access to food for a few days so you’re not having to schlep to and from the supermarket every day – and that means looking for alternatives to fresh fodder.

Nichola says that frozen fruits and veg actually contain more nutrients than their fresh counterparts.

“However what matters most is how you cook it. For example, steaming preserves more of the vitamins than boiling. If your tinned vegetables contain salt then make sure to rinse them before cooking or eating.”

An illustration of a woman holding a basket of essential goods.
People desperately need to stop stockpiling.

What to stock up on

While there’s absolutely no need to stockpile anything (supermarkets remain open and bulk buying may impact someone more vulnerable), it’s worth making sure that you have a few food heroes in your kitchen.

Nichola says that her favourite nutrient-dense foods that provide vitamin C, D and zinc to support a healthy immune system include:

  • Tomatoes (tinned, pureed or fresh)
  • Peppers
  • Salmon
  • Wholemeal bread
  • Eggs

Remember, tinned food is completely fine.

Pascal Nourtier is a nutritionist based on Harley Street and he tells us that the benefit of eating tinned foods is that “all bacteria and viruses that could initially be present on fresh products are destroyed”.

Tinned fish and meat contain the same amount of protein as the fresh stuff, he says, because all the minerals are kept in the tin. 

“If you were to chose a tin-based died it’s important to combine it with a can of vegetables with each meal to ensure you are also getting fibre and vitamins.

“The only vitamin difficult to keep in a tin is vitamin C so it’s recommended to consume fresh fruit (well washed) and take a good quality vitamin C supplement for an exclusive tin-based diet over a long period.”

Although you can’t boost your system, it’s still worth trying to get a range of vitamins if you can.

If you’re struggling to reach the recommended five-a-day during these difficult times, think about taking a supplement containing 10mcg of vitamin D and a general multivitamin and mineral.

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