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It's flu season again, so that means most people get a flu shot and strive to stay healthy. But can certain foods or supplements boost the immune system and help with that "staying healthy" goal? There's a lot of misinformation about which foods or supplements actually work.
Here are some myths and facts about immune-boosting nutrients:
Myth: Vitamin C prevents illness.
Turning to large doses of vitamin C in the winter to avoid getting sick doesn't work. However, vitamin C may shorten the duration of a cold once you're already under the weather. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, and those anti-inflammatory properties may reduce swollen sinuses.
Myth: Zinc boosts your immune system.
Much like vitamin C, there's not enough evidence to support taking extra zinc to keep sickness at bay. Meeting daily zinc requirements is important for a healthy immune system, but exceeding these requirements can be toxic. In 2009, the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to stay away from zinc nasal sprays after studies found they could damage the sense of smell.
Fact: Chicken soup is a cure-all.
The healing benefits of chicken soup are numerous, according to the National Institutes of Health. Not only is grandma's home remedy heartwarming, but it also has properties that fight inflammation, promote hydration and get mucus flowing.
Myth: Dairy increases mucus production.
Some swear that milk and other dairy products make a phlegmy illness worse, but there's no science behind it. Most studies have found no relationship between eating dairy and increased mucus production.
Choose immune-boosting nutrients
These nutrients play a role in boosting the immune system:
- Beta carotene
Beta carotene is found in plant foods, such as sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, mangoes, broccoli and tomatoes.
- Vitamin C
Vitamin C-rich foods include citrus fruits, berries, melons, tomatoes, bell peppers and broccoli.
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D is found in fatty fish and eggs. Milk and 100% juices fortified with vitamin D also are good sources.
Zinc tends to be better absorbed from foods such as beef and seafood, but it's also found in plant-based sources, including wheat germ, beans, nuts and tofu.
Probiotics are good bacteria that promote health. You'll find them in cultured dairy products, such as yogurt, and in fermented foods, such as kefir and kimchi.
Protein comes from animal and plant sources, including milk, yogurt, eggs, beef, chicken, seafood, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils.
Keep the immune system strong all year long
While having a healthy immune system is a plus during the season of colds and flu, consider these tips for keeping your immune system strong throughout the year:
- Focus on a balanced eating plan.
Don't skip meals so your body stays well-fueled. Aim for five to seven servings of vegetables and fruits daily to provide those immune-boosting vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. A serving of fruit is one medium piece of fresh fruit, one cup of berries or melon, or one-half cup of canned fruit packed in its own juice. A serving of vegetables is one-half cup cooked or one cup raw. Getting these nutrients from foods versus vitamin or mineral supplements is always best. Many herbal remedies are marketed to help fight colds or shorten their duration, but check with a health care provider before taking any supplements or medications. And don't forget fluids. Remember to drink adequate fluids throughout the day. Plain water is best.
- Crack down on spreading germs.
Good hygiene and hand-washing help prevent the spread of germs. Remember to wash produce before eating or using in recipes. Clean glasses, forks, spoons and other utensils to reduce the spread and growth of bacteria.
- Increase sleep, reduce stress.
Getting adequate sleep and managing stress can be just as important as healthy eating to ward off the flu. Research demonstrates that lack of sleep and increased stress contribute to illness and overall poor health, so:
- Adults should get seven to nine hours of sleep each day, while children need eight to 14 hours, depending on their age.
- Healthy ways to cope with stress include meditating, listening to music or writing.
- Physical activity is another strategy to manage stress and may reduce the risk of some chronic diseases that can weaken your immune system.
Even if you eat healthy, get plenty of rest, drink adequate fluids and manage your stress, you may still catch the flu. If so, your illness may not last as long, and you may not feel so bad.
Stay well. In the meantime, here are some recipes incorporating immune-fighting foods:
Chicken Noodle Soup with Dill
10 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
3 medium carrots, diced
1 large stalk celery, diced
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic, minced
4 ounces whole-wheat egg noodles (3 cups)
4 cups shredded cooked skinless chicken breast (about 1 pound)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 tablespoon lemon juice, or to taste
Bring broth to a boil in a Dutch oven. Add carrots, celery, ginger and garlic; cook uncovered over medium heat until vegetables are just tender, about 20 minutes. Add noodles and chicken; simmer until the noodles are just tender, 8–10 minutes. Stir in dill and lemon juice.
Nutrition per serving (1½ cups): Calories 267, total fat 4 g, saturated fat 2 g, monounsaturated fat 1 g, cholesterol 0 g, protein 38 g, carbohydrates 18 g, dietary fiber 2 g, sodium 330 g.
Tomato Apple Jam
Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Center
Serve as condiment with chicken steak, fish, fried eggs or toast.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup yellow onions, diced
1 teaspoon ground mustard seed
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 cups tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 cups apples, unpeeled and diced
¼ cup apple cider vinegar
¼ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
Heat olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Sautee onions for two minutes. Then add all the spices; toast and stir for two minutes. Add the tomatoes, apples, vinegar and sugar. Mix together and simmer over low heat for 20–30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste.
Nutrition per serving (2 tablespoons): Calories 24, total fat 0.5 g, saturated fat 0.1 g, monounsaturated fat 0.3 g, cholesterol 0 g, protein 0.3 g, carbohydrates 5 g, dietary fiber 1 g, sodium 48 g.