Between battling its usual archenemies — like the germs that cause the common cold and free radicals that constantly barrage your cells — your body’s immune system gets a real workout. Keeping your immune system in fighting shape and ready for action is key to staying well. As your body’s first line of defense, the immune system can benefit from healthy foods that provide essential nutrients, antioxidants and vitamins that support optimal immune system health.
But what can you do to help keep your immune system in top condition? According to Dr. Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM, chair of Jenny Craig’s Science Advisory Board, one of the essential elements of a strong immune system is a healthy diet.
“Whole foods filled with high-quality carbs, fats and proteins are key,” she says, adding that foods rich in immunity-boosting vitamins are particularly beneficial.
Supplements vs. food
Vitamin supplements may seem like a simple shortcut to get your vitamin fix, but supplements are not intended to substitute food. In addition to providing vitamins, whole foods offer greater nutrition in the form of micronutrients, essential fiber and protective substances such as antioxidants, which also may protect against certain diseases and illnesses.1
The good news: many immune-boosting vitamins are readily available in delicious and versatile foods. Getting your immune system in top shape is as simple as choosing and preparing a wide variety of vibrant vegetables and fruits (whether they be fresh or frozen), lean protein sources and whole grains.
What are the best vitamins for immunity, and how can you get enough of them?
There are four top vitamins that Peeke recommends including in your diet. Here are her top picks:
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1. Vitamin D
Peeke calls out vitamin D as an immunity-boosting hero. “This vitamin is critical to making proteins that kill viruses and bacteria,” she states. Promising research also suggests that supplementing your vitamin D intake may help your body more effectively fight off respiratory illness.2 Boost your D intake by getting small doses of sunlight (also a mood booster,3 which is great for immunity4) and by eating D-rich foods. D-fortified foods like milk and yogurt are reliable sources of this immunity heavy-hitter.
More vitamin D foods:5
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel)
Try it: Add some grilled mushrooms to an egg and cheese breakfast sandwich.
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2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C’s reputation as an immune system celebrity is well documented and widely embraced — with good reason. Long-touted as a preventative measure against the common cold, vitamin C has been shown to be essential for the growth and repair of cells all over the body.6 In fact, research indicates that a deficiency of vitamin C may result in impaired immunity and higher susceptibility to infections.7 What’s more, vitamin C supplementation appears to be able to both prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.7
Peeke recommends daily intake of this nutritional superstar because your body neither produces nor stores vitamin C. “The good news is that vitamin C is in so many foods that most people don’t need to take a supplement unless a doctor advises it,” she says.
Getting that essential daily dose of vitamin C is a dietary delight as there are a range of foods chock-full of it. Fruits and vegetables are well-known treasure troves of vitamin C.
Try these vitamin C-rich options:
- Citrus fruits (tangerines, grapefruits)
- Bell peppers
- Leafy greens (spinach, chard, kale)
Photo by Christine Siracusa on Unsplash
3. Vitamin B6
Vitamin B6 has also earned a top spot on the list of immunity-boosting vitamins because of its essential function supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system.8 While it is significant for several biological functions, including the creation of red blood cells, vitamin B6 is not produced by your body. But most people have no problem getting a sufficient amount of vitamin B6 from dietary sources.
Delicious sources of vitamin B6 include:
- Poultry (chicken & turkey)
- Fatty fish (tuna & salmon)
Photo by Remi Yuan on Unsplash
4. Vitamin E
Vitamin E also takes a leading role in building up your body’s ability to fight off invading viruses and bacteria.9 Recent evidence has shown that vitamin E is necessary for normal function of the immune system.10 Long recognized as an antioxidant, vitamin E is fat-soluble and found in many foods, so it is easy to get enough by eating a varied and wholesome diet.
Get your daily dose of this nutritional superhero by making sure your menus include vitamin E-rich foods:
- Vegetable oils (sunflower, wheat germ, safflower)
- Nuts (almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts)
- Leafy greens (spinach, beet greens)
Bottom line: Good nutrition is at the core of staying healthy. Some essential vitamins are particularly effective in galvanizing the body’s immune system against illness-causing agents. With your immune system in top shape, your body is better positioned to win the battle against harmful threats such as bacteria, viruses and other opportunistic forces. While supplements are effective, most vitamins and essential nutrients are more readily available from foods. Steering clear of nutritionally empty choices in favor of a varied diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can go a long way toward warding off illness and staying healthy.
So, take a sunshine break, choose a healthy snack, plan your meals wisely and go live your healthy life knowing that your body is armed and ready to keep you well.
Need help planning healthy meals and snacks? Jenny Craig’s got you covered. Meal plans start at just $12.99. View plans.
Colleen Gibbs is a communications professional with 20 years of experience in journalism, public relations and content marketing. She has written for the music, culinary, finance, and zoo and aquarium industries. If Colleen is not outside cultivating her butterfly garden, she is inside reading yet another Tudor England biography or perfecting her coq au vin recipe. The mother of two college students, Colleen has a stand-up paddle board and is not afraid to use it.
Favorite healthy snack: Roasted unsalted almonds and ALL the summer fruits.
Dr. Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP
Dr. Peeke is chairman of the Jenny Craig Science Advisory Board, Pew Foundation Scholar in Nutrition and Metabolism, Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Maryland, School of Medicine, and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians. She is an internationally recognized expert, physician, scientist and New York Times best-selling author in the fields of public health, nutrition, fitness and weight management.
This article is based on scientific research and/or other scientific articles and was written by an experienced health and lifestyle contributor and reviewed by certified professionals.
Our goal at Jenny Craig is to provide the most up-to-date and objective information on health-related topics, so our readers can make informed decisions based on factual content. All articles undergo an extensive review process, and depending on the topic, are reviewed by a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) or Nutritionist, to ensure accuracy.
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Edited by Elisa - Jenny Craig