Already suffering from seasonal sniffles? With the imminent arrival of cold and flu season, you may be tempted to turn to “immune-boosting” supplements like Emergen-C to save you from a sore throat, runny nose, body aches, and the other energy-sapping side effects of a seasonal bug.
Unfortunately, most immune-boosting supplements are nothing more than a waste of money: little clinical efficacy has been shown for Vitamin C in the prevention of the common cold, save for in extremely active individuals, for whom Vitamin C may offer more protection.
While cold-fighting supplements won’t do much to bolster your immune system, what you eat plays a large role in immune health. The foods and beverages you consume every day will have a much larger role in immune health than many immune supplements, which often offer little more than a placebo effect.Certain foods and beverages are highly beneficial for- or highly detrimental to- immune health.
If you’re hoping to prevent a cold or the flu this season (and really, who isn’t?) here are a few foods you should focus on- and a few you should skip.
IMMUNE BUSTERS: SUGAR, FRUIT JUICE, ALCOHOLWhile it’s easy to assume your sugar consumption is within the healthy recommended range, most Americans consume far more sugar than we should. Women and children should consume no more than 25 grams of sugar each day and men no more than 36- and yet the average American currently consumes more than 80 grams a day.
Even if you’re not consciously snacking on sweet treats and sugary beverages, you’re likely consuming more than you think, thanks to hidden sugar in products like bread, sauces, condiments, and salad dressings. Remember that even foods that seem healthy can contain added sugars.
Moreover, even foods high in naturally-occurring sugars (like fruit juice) can be problematic when consumed regularly.
Foods like no sugar added orange juice (which, ironically, is commonly believed to be beneficial for immune health) contain as much sugar like soda or other sugar-added beverages- and while the sugar in fruit juices is largely natural, its effects on blood sugar and immune health are similar.
Whenever you consume fruit, always do so in its whole form- doing so will help control blood sugar response, reducing inflammation and improving immune health, rather than reducing it.
As for fruit juice of the fermented variety? Alcohol has a mild anti-inflammatory effect when consumed in the acceptable, moderate quantity (no more than 1 drink/day for women, 2 drinks/day for men), but becomes inflammation-producing in excess of the aforementioned limits.
During cold and flu season, be especially careful with regards to alcohol consumption- holiday cocktail parties and festive dinners are tempting environments for over-imbibing, leaving you tipsy, tired, and susceptible to a bug.
IMMUNE BOOSTERS: LEAN PROTEINS, SEAFOOD, YOGURT, VEGGIES
During the cold and flu season, focus on healthy, lean proteins. Many Americans tend to consume diets overly high in carbohydrate: the influx of bread, rice, pasta, crackers, chips, granola bars, beverages, and other high-starchy items can cause large fluctuations in blood sugar, increasing cellular inflammation and reducing immunity to invading viruses. Moreover, these items tend to crowd out space for dietary proteins.
When choosing meat, always favor leaner varieties when possible: skinless chicken breasts and thighs, pork tenderloin, skinless turkey breast, beef sirloin, beef tenderloin, and lean ground meats are all good options. Seafood remains disappointingly under-consumed in the United States, often stemming from lack of habit more than lack of enjoyment.
Rather than focusing on a regular rotation of chicken and beef, vary your proteins to include a mixture of chicken, pork, beef, and seafood: salmon is a great choice, especially given its high Vitamin D content: Vitamin D plays a large role in immune health and is sorely under-consumed thanks to its relative scarcity in food.
Two additional Vitamin D rich foods- yogurt and eggs- make great winter breakfast options. Yogurt- especially Greek yogurt- is beneficial for both its Vitamin D content and probiotics. Probiotics improve immune health by balancing gut bacteria, which help fight off invading viruses that may otherwise leave you ill. Consuming both pre and probiotics in their natural forms (rather than a supplement) is always your best bet.
Finally, the foods we all know we should be eating more of: veggies. While fruit consumption is generally adequate for many individuals, vegetable consumption is woefully low: only 10% of Americans consume the recommended daily amount of vegetables.
During cold and flu season, this is especially problematic, as vegetables are potent sources of vitamins and minerals.