January 28, 2021

Healthy eating tips for cold and flu season

What you eat can help keep your immune system strong and ease symptoms when you do get sick.

Contributed by Silvia Delgado, RD

When we talk about ways to prevent illnesses, conversations in 2020 and 2021 have centered around physical distancing, good hand hygiene, and wearing face masks.

All those measures are important for preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses, but let’s not forget about another important safeguard: what we eat. Food can help the healing process, too.

Everyday habits to build immunity

If you’re looking to promote a healthy immune system, here are my top recommendations:

  • Plant-based foods. Look for plant-based foods that are whole, unprocessed, and unrefined. Seek out a variety of foods, including different vegetables, fruits, beans, legumes, and whole grains — the wider the variety, the better. Different plant foods contain different nutrients that can result in different health benefits. Increasing your intake can be as simple as sprinkling garbanzo beans on a salad to add another plant-based element. Why do plant-based foods help us ward off illnesses? Plant foods are full of antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that strengthen the immune system. They are also full of fiber, which is responsible for feeding the healthy bacteria that live in our gut. The microbiome in our gut is home to 60% to 70% of our body’s immune cells. Fiber benefits everyone, whether you are generally healthy or have a chronic condition such as diabetes or heart disease.
  • Vitamin D. Also known as the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D helps regulate the immune system. Some studies show that vitamin D may reduce the risk of upper respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold and the flu in school-age children. Foods rich in vitamin D include mushrooms, salmon, and eggs, as well vitamin D-fortified milk and yogurt.

Easing symptoms when you’re sick

If you do get sick, whether it’s a cold, the flu, or COVID-19, here are my 2 top recommendations to help speed up the recovery process:

  • Liquids. Stay hydrated. Warm water with lemon, broth, soup, and hot tea with honey can be soothing and may help loosen congestion and prevent dehydration. Keep it simple and stick with broth versus creamy soups.
  • Zinc. Zinc is essential for regulation of the immune response. Although more studies are needed, a 2015 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews showed that zinc supplementation may shorten the duration of a cold by 33%. Adequate zinc intake can be achieved by consuming a variety of plant-based foods. Zinc can be found in many foods — I recommend quinoa, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, mushrooms, garbanzos, and any kind of lentils.

In these times, it may feel like there’s so much we can’t control, but our diets can influence our health. What we eat can help our immune systems stay strong and be better equipped to fight off illnesses.