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How to Eat for a Strong Immune System that Lessens Risk for the Coronavirus

The coronavirus is the #1 headline worldwide, and it is impacting all of us in many ways. For prevention and protection, the key advice is to wash our hands as often as possible, avoid touching our face, and of course, steer clear of those who are ill. All of these are smart steps; however, as smart is to proactively strengthen your immune system by including certain foods in your daily diet—and conversely, avoiding foods that weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infection.

Here’s why a strong immune system is a major ally in thwarting illness and keeping us healthy.

The bottom line: Your immune system fights off pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that can cause infection or disease. The “internal warrior” in your immune system is antibodies, which your immune system releases to fight against infection and viruses. And it is the nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in real foods that keep your immune system balanced and poised to ward off unwelcome pathogens.

In other words, we don’t have control over other risk factors such as age and existing conditions that make us more vulnerable to the virus, but we can choose foods that cultivate a healthy gut, and in this way, build our immune system and make ourselves less vulnerable to illness.

Rx: Fresh, Whole, Plant-Based Foods

There’s a simple way to eat to strengthen your immune system. It’s a time- and science-tested guideline that has nourished humankind for millennia. The secret of eating to ward off illness is to eat fresh, whole food in its natural state as often as possible. This means eating organic, plant-based foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and peas, and nuts and seeds—because they are packed with the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and more, you need for healthy immune function.

Fresh, whole, plant-based foods—especially fruits and veggies—have the whole package of nutrients needed for optimal health and well-being and to boost the immune system. Here’s a sampling of some immune-boosting foods, and an example of the “natural-pharmacy” nutrients they contain that can keep you healthy.

A caveat: Healing is more likely when you consume lots of plant-based foods because they contain a cornucopia of health-filled nutrients. Targeting a single nutrient or taking a supplement isn’t the goal.

Here are some immune-boosting foods and beverages that can truly make a difference to the “inner health” of your immune system. Consider including them along with other fruits, veggies, and spices you consume each day.

  • Blueberries. Recent research reveals that a particular flavonoid in blueberries, called anthocyanin, plays an essential role in boosting the immune defense system in the respiratory tract. The bottom line: Flavonoid-rich foods may reduce the odds of getting an upper respiratory tract infection or the common cold.
  • Dark chocolate. Chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or higher is rich in an antioxidant called theobromine. And theobromine may boost the immune system by protecting the body against free radicals that can damage cells and weaken the immune system. About an ounce—think, about the size of a credit card—is enough to reap the rewards.
  • Spinach. Some essential nutrients and antioxidants in spinach—such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and vitamins C and E—can help support the immune system. Include spinach and other nutrient-dense greens, such as kale and collards, in salads and smoothies.
  • Green tea. As with blueberries, the high flavonoid content in green tea may strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of a cold.
  • Kefir. A fermented drink filled with many beneficial live cultures of “good” bacteria, regular consumption of kefir may boost the immune system in three ways. It fights bacteria, reduces inflammation, and enhances antioxidants.
  • Specific spices.
    • Garlic. The allicin in garlic reduces odds of getting a cold.
    • Tumeric. A yellow-red spice abundant in antioxidants, the curcumin in turmeric may improve your immune response and be anti-inflammatory.
    • Ginger. Abundant in antioxidants, ginger is an anti-inflammatory that may boost the immune system.

The Takeaway: Lifestyle, Lifestyle, Lifestyle

Consuming an abundance of fresh, whole fruits and veggies and other plant-based foods—and avoiding their opposite: processed, fried, de-natured, sugar-and-chemical laden foods—is critical to boosting your immune system, and lessening your risk for viral infections. In other words, you are fully armed to fight the coronavirus and other infectious agents if you integrate eating well into your everyday lifestyle—along with de-stressing, restorative sleep, regular physical activity, and social support. The bottom line: Your everyday lifestyle is the answer to a strong immune system and staying healthy.


Deborah Kesten, M.P.H., is an award-winning author, specializing in preventing and reversing obesity and heart disease. Her expertise includes the influence of epigenetics and diet on health, Lifestyle Medicine, and research on the Whole Person Integrative Eating dietary lifestyle to treat overeating, overweight, and obesity. She and her husband, behavioral scientist Larry Scherwitz, Ph.D., collaborate on research and writing projects. Her latest book, “Whole Person Integrative Eating” was named the “Winner” in the Health category by the 2020 Book Excellence Awards.

Article originally printed on integrativeeating.com. Reprinted with permission from Deborah Kesten. 

MFN Contributing Author