Good nutrition is critical to your body’s ability to fight the flu—and your kitchen cupboards and refrigerator are packed with foods that lower the likelihood that you’ll be laid low by this nasty bug.
Here are 10 good choices that will arm your immune system so it can fight off flu viruses effectively. “These are all really fine choices but they’re not the only ones,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “You really have a lazy Susan of options to help keep you healthy. Cranberries are good for you, for example, but so are blueberries and raspberries.”
Go for the fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy you like to eat most, but don’t stick to them exclusively. A variety of choices provides an array of assorted nutrients necessary for good health.
Each day seems to bring new findings about fighting respiratory infections such as those caused by the influenza viruses plaguing the country this fall. Surprisingly, vitamin D, long known for its role in building strong bones, may turn out to be an important way to arm the immune system.
In a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that people with the lowest blood vitamin D levels were about 40 percent more likely to report having a cold or the flu than people with higher levels. Sunlight provides the body’s main supply of vitamin D. Wild-caught salmon and sun-dried mushrooms are also good sources, and fortified foods provide some, notes Boston University School of Medicine endocrinologist Michael Holick, M.D.
Nutrition experts recommend that you opt for whole food when you can and be wary of pills that claim to contain the requisite amounts of a particular immune-building or flu-fighting compound. “Flu viruses are quick to develop resistance to a single synthetic compound,” says James Duke, author of The Green Pharmacy. For example, he says, “viruses are much less likely to develop resistance to a plant like garlic that contains 5,000 natural chemicals.”
Not all flu fighters are vitamins or minerals. “Beneficial bacteria called probiotics, found in yogurt and other fermented foods, have been studied for their effect on the digestive tract,” says Caroline Apovian, M.D., director of the Nutrition and Weight Loss Management Center at the Boston University Medical Center. “But probiotics also strengthen the immune system and can help prevent flu and other illnesses.” Choose a variety of brands because each probiotic species provides a distinctive health benefit, and you probably need a little bit of all of them, Apovian adds.
Some yogurt is heat-treated after fermentation to reduce tartness or extend shelf life, a process that kills off beneficial bacteria, so look for yogurt that says “live and active cultures.” Not all manufacturers use this voluntary seal but many do. And dish up foods that contain prebiotics, a type of soluble fiber that promotes the growth of probiotics. They’re found in almonds, whole grains, bananas, honey, onions, artichokes and garlic.
To guard against flu this winter, get a flu shot, wash your hands often, try to stay out of crowded places—and stock your kitchen with foods that will help keep you healthy. And if you do come down with the flu, Mom’s advice was right—rest, fluids and chicken soup.
Nissa Simon, who lives in New Haven, Conn., writes about nutrition and medical issues.