Nutrients That Support A Healthy Immune System: Tips from a Plant Based RD
Author: Emily Wood, RD
Nutrients That Support A Healthy Immune System
Hello my fellow Foodnerd followers! As a quick aside, I am so happy to be making my debut on the Foodnerd blog. I have known the founder, Sharon, for about 2 years now and she is an A-MAZE-ING person. So passionate about sharing her love of food science with the world.
Ok, now on to today’s topic – immunity. Immunity is such a hot topic right now given everything that is going on. I have seen loads of questions about how to best protect our health, and rightfully so.
I don’t know about you, but getting sick isn’t on my agenda.
When it comes to boosting immune health, there is NO ONE thing that will magically make you resistant to disease.
So, if your plan is to just pump yourself with a vitamin C supplement, then keep reading…
Interestingly enough, I have recently done some digging on vitamin C supplementation, and the research supporting the benefits of taking doses of vitamin C above what the body needs is inconsistent.
But I want to expand on this a bit. Because while consuming vitamin C is essential for protecting our bodies against illness and disease, it doesn’t work alone. There are several other nutrients that support our immunity.
And fun fact for you…did you know that about 75% or your immune system lies in your gut? True story. It’s called the Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue or GALT for short. So all that stuff you read about how a healthy microbiome = a healthy you, is true.
One of the best ways to keep your microbiome healthy is to eat an abundance of whole, plant-based foods. The healthy bacteria in your gut feed off the prebiotic fiber provided by plant-based foods.
There is much more to say about the microbiome that will be covered in a future post on the Foodnerd blog so stay tuned.
At this point you may be thinking, “Alright Emily, I get it, but what do I need to be eating to boost my immune system and optimize my health?”
Great question! And I am about to answer that next.
As I mentioned there are lots of nutrients that work together to protect our body from illness. Some of those nutrients are Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Vitamin E, Selenium, Zinc, and Iron.
And lucky for us, all of these nutrients can be obtained from eating a variety of whole, plant-based foods. High five to that!
Check out these nutrients in more detail below.
Immune-Boosting Nutrients and Food Sources
The first, rather obvious one. Vitamin C actually has several roles in the body, but for purposes of this post, I am just going to focus on 2:
- Stimulating the formation of antibodies, thus boosting immunity
- Is a powerful antioxidant to help protect and repair our cells
Vitamin C deficiency is generally not a concern, but hold the phone on consuming too much because very high doses may lead to kidney stones or diarrhea.
Some rich food sources of vitamin C are: oranges, bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, broccoli, and cabbage.
Most people associate vitamin D with bone health, but it also plays a vital role in immunity. Vitamin D deficiency is actually quite common, so I encourage you to get your blood level checked if it hasn’t been done in a while.
There are not many natural food sources of vitamin D (mostly fortified milks, yogurt, cereal, or juices), but want to know the main source of Vitamin D? Sunshine! Our skin is able to use the sun’s rays to provide our body with vitamin D. Pretty incredible don’t you think?
Vitamin E has a big role as an antioxidant protecting our cells and therefore contributing to immunity.
The best food sources of vitamin E are oils, however, if you are following a whole-food, plant-based diet, you may be eliminating oils. If that is the case, here are some whole food options: almonds, sunflower seeds, smooth peanut butter, and spinach.
Known as a trace mineral, selenium boosts immune function and works with vitamin E to protect our cells. Very high levels of selenium from supplements can cause severe health problems such as heart and kidney failure, so don’t go crazy with this one.
Fun fact for you…eating 1 brazil nut provides all the selenium your body needs in 1 day.
Talk about good things coming in small packages! Selenium can also be found in smaller amounts in whole grains such as whole-wheat bread or brown rice.
Cashews and white beans also supply us with small amounts of selenium.
Zinc is another trace mineral that has many very important roles in the body, especially when it comes to helping the body repair itself.
Consuming an adequate amount of zinc is essential for making DNA, the building block of our cells. Zinc helps the immune system work properly, but consuming too much overtime can actually have the opposite effect and lower immunity.
Some plant-based food sources of zinc are wheat germ, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, tofu, almonds, kidney beans, and peanut butter.
A third trace mineral that helps support a healthy immune system is iron. I have seen many people rush to the vitamin store to buy iron supplements as soon as they decide to eat plant-based, and I just want to say that you don’t have to do this!
There are LOADS of plant-based foods that supply our body with iron. Yes, plants provide the less bio-available form of iron, but your body is smart and knows how to take what it needs.
Some iron-rich plant foods are spinach, kidney beans, whole wheat, and enriched bread products, fortified cereals, and brown rice.
One point I really want to hit home here is that boosting your immune system and protecting yourself against illness is a combination of things that all work together.
In addition to focusing on eating more whole, plant-based foods, make sure to be getting plenty of sleep, keep physically active, and practice stress management techniques.
Do all of these things as often as you can to not only overcome illness but to prevent it in the first place : )
Reference: Duyff, R L. (2017). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Emily Wood is a wife, mom, Registered Dietitian, and instructor for the T Colin Campbell Plant-Based Certificate Program. She helps women lose weight and create a body they love with a plant-based diet. Connect with her at www.emilywoodrd.com