11 Foods You Need for a Healthy Immune System

Ramp up your diet to fend off sick days.

With winter flus and Covid amongst us, give your immune system a boost with these foods so you have fewer sick days and more run days.

Living Foods

A healthy gut is your strongest ally when it comes to fending off viruses and the not-so-good bacteria. Supplemental doses of healthy bacteria enhance and replace the good bacteria that have been naturally weakened by things like stress due to high mileage or hard workouts, illness and antibiotic use.

Eat it: You can get these healthy bacteria (probiotics!) with foods labeled ‘live and active cultures’, like yoghurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh and kombucha.

Chicken Soup

Whether it’s your soul or your upper respiratory tract that needs healing, there’s a reason chicken soup comes out on top. Research has shown that the soup carries immune benefits, thanks to a mild anti-inflammatory effect found in the broth.  The protein in chicken also helps boost your immune system. Add plenty of extra veggies for vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – all of which are an additional ally in your fight against cold and flu.

Eat it: Load up on soup when you’re sniffly, but avoid high-sodium canned soups. (And choose BPA-free tins.)

All the Fruits and Vegetables

One of the single best things you can do to stay healthy is to ‘eat the rainbow’, which has become a common nutritional phrase. Foods that are rich in colour – kale, beets, berries, Brussels sprouts, capsicum – contain high levels of antioxidants, phytochemicals and vitamins like folate and beta carotene. Research has also found that when you’re deficient in certain micronutrients – zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E – the immune systems in animals can be compromised. As long as you’re eating a varied diet, it’s unlikely you’ll become deficient in these micronutrients, and your immune system will remain strong.

Eat it: Add a handful of colourful produce to every meal. A good way to sneak veggies into your diet is to blend them right into your fruit smoothie.

Foods with Vitamin D

It may not be a coincidence that cold and flu season coincides with the dark, cold days of winter. Research has found that adults with low levels of vitamin D in their system were more likely to have recently suffered from a cough, cold or upper respiratory infection. And because you can’t get the vitamin D you need from the sun in the winter months, diet is extra important. Fill your plate with fatty fish (salmon, herring and tuna), fortified foods (dairy, breads, cereals and orange juice), eggs and supplements. When it comes to supplements, your best bet is D3, which is closest to how your body produces the vitamin, meaning it will be better absorbed.

Eat it: Add milk to your coffee, top your salad with canned fish or make a veggie-packed omelette (yolk included!).

Turmeric and Curcumin

Turmeric is hot right now, thanks to its anti-inflammatory benefits. Those benefits actually come from curcumin, the orange-yellow component of turmeric. If you like curry, that’s a popular dish that has the powerful spice. You can also supplement. But be wary: “The biggest issue with curcumin and turmeric is its bioavailability,” says Tavis Piattoly, a sports dietitian. “The key with curcumin is making sure it is combined with a phytosome to enhance its absorption into the blood stream.”

Eat it: Treat yourself to Indian food, use turmeric in your own cooking, or consider a supplement.

Green Tea

Stay warm while building immune health, thanks to the EGCG, a powerful antioxidant that is abundant in green tea.  EGCG naturally protects a variety of cells from being weakened and shields them from potential harm caused by components that serve to attack your health.

Drink it: Substitute your morning coffee for a cup of green tea a few times a week.


Forgive the pun but onions provide layer upon layer of health benefits. Many of these benefits stem from the quercetin found in this root vegetable. Quercetin is a powerful antioxidant known for its antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties. In studies with runners and other athletes, scientists from Appalachian State University in North Carolina, USA, have shown that daily doses of quercetin can reduce viral infections and inflammation due to heavy exercise.

Eat it: Sautee and add to stir-fry, burgers, omelette, or use raw on sandwiches and in salads. Onions are a great substitute for salt or fat when it comes to adding flavour.


Studies have shown that low zinc levels are associated with a reduced number of T cells, or white blood cells that help your body fight infection. Endurance exercise (think hard training programs) also puts you at risk for reduced levels of T-cells, which may explain why runners may be more likely to get an upper respiratory infection toward the end of marathon training.

Eat it: Oysters are packed with zinc, providing 700 per cent of your Daily Value in 85g.  Not into seafood? Grab wheat germ instead – 1/4 cup provides approximately 25 per cent of your daily needs.

Butternut Pumpkin

This veggie is packed with vitamin A and beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. One cup of cooked pumpkin has more than 450 per cent of your daily A needs.  Beta-carotene helps protect your skin from sun damage by deflecting and repairing cell damage caused by excessive UV exposure and vitamin A protects the body from cracking skin and dry sinuses, preventing viruses and bacteria from entering the body.

Eat it: Serve roasted pumpkin with greens and avocado (fat will help your body absorb vitamin A) or serve as a butternut pumpkin soup.


Just 30g has more than 20 per cent of your vitamin E and manganese needs, for healthy immune function. Almonds are also an excellent source of plant protein and heart-healthy fats.

Eat it: Sprinkle on oatmeal or cereal, or toss into trail mix.


Oats are naturally rich in a fibre called beta-glucan, which boosts your body’s ability to fight off infections. The connection between beta-glucan, improved heart health and reduced cholesterol levels is well-known. But now researchers think it may also play a role in warding off upper respiratory infections. In one study, mice given beta-glucan for 10 days had fewer infections after running on the treadmill compared to those who didn’t receive the supplement.

Eat it: Cook up a large batch of old fashioned or steel-cut oats and freeze the leftovers for a quick breakfast later in the week. Or use oats when making cookies for a healthy treat.

Related Articles