10 surprising foods that boost your immunity

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Did you know that some foods can help boost your immune system naturally and work to keep you healthy? In this article, learn how to incorporate the best immunity boosting foods into your diet — and why these foods in particular help protect your health.

Woman with a cold blowing her nose on the couch.
Boost your immune system naturally and stay healthy by learning about 10 of nature’s best illness fighters. Photo credit: Depositphotos

Nature’s best illness fighters

Many foods you’ll find at your local grocery store can help keep you healthy throughout the year. These 10 common foods top the list.  

1. Mushrooms

Mushrooms contain selenium, deficiency of which may cause increased susceptibility to contracting a virus, as found in a study published in Nutrients journal. The riboflavin and niacin found in mushrooms are also important for a healthy immune system.

Try adding a handful of mushrooms to your pasta sauce, scrambled eggs and omelets, or throw them on top of a homemade pizza. Mushrooms are also delicious, simply sautéed or roasted with a little olive oil and salt and pepper.

2. Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes and other orange foods like carrots, squash and pumpkin contain the antioxidant beta-carotene. This is a form of vitamin A that is essential for keeping your skin strong and able to fight off bacteria and viruses.

“Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects you from infections by supporting immune system cells and barriers that keep the bad stuff out,” said Kara Lydon, a dietitian, certified intuitive eating counselor, and author of the e-book Nourish Your Namaste: How Nutrition and Yoga Can Support Digestion, Immunity, Energy and Relaxation. “One sweet potato has over 380% of the daily value for vitamin A.”

Try cutting sweet potatoes into strips and baking them coated in a little olive oil, salt and pepper to make a healthy homemade version of French fries. 

Or, for a major time-saving hack, learn how to cook a sweet potato in the microwave, then simply top it with a little butter and cinnamon for an easy side dish.

3. Almonds

Almonds are an excellent source of vitamin E, another antioxidant responsible for supporting the immune system. Grab a handful — 1/4 cup — to get 50% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin E.

4. Yogurt

Yogurt contains live and active cultures called probiotics. These can help stimulate the immune system and keep our gut and intestinal tract healthy and free of disease-causing bacteria.

Any yogurt with a Live and Active Cultures seal contains some beneficial bugs. You can see them in the ingredients list as well.

Dairy products, like yogurt, also tend to be good sources of vitamin D; a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found vitamin D deficiency is linked to an increased risk of contracting a cold or the flu.

5. Leafy greens 

Leafy greens like spinach and kale are rich in a whole host of nutrients, including fiber, antioxidants and folate, which is especially important for immune function, as per a study in The Journal of Immunology. 

Both spinach and kale leaves are great tossed into a salad with another lighter, crunchier green, like romaine, for texture variance. Spinach leaves are also an excellent replacement for less nutrient-dense iceberg lettuce on a sandwich.

You can also use spinach and kale in fruit smoothies — just be sure to use only the leaves of the kale, not the bitter stems. 

If you’re more a fan of savory, crunchy snacks, give a baked kale chips recipe a try — they are easy to make and surprisingly delicious. 

6. Tea

Green and black tea contain polyphenols and flavonoids, which are antioxidants that help fight disease. In addition, an amino acid that’s responsible for an immune boost, L-theanine, is abundant in both black and green tea. Decaf versions have it, too.

Drink several unsweetened cups per day to reap the benefits. To get more antioxidants from your tea bags, bob them up and down while they brew.

7. Cabbage

This inexpensive winter vegetable is a source of glutamine, which has been noted by many studies, including one in Nutrients journal, to strengthen the immune system. Try it in your winter soups and stews, or throw shredded raw cabbage into your wraps or salads to add a nice crunch that won’t change the flavor profile of the meal. 

8. Garlic

In addition to warding off vampires, garlic also contains the active ingredient allicin, which fights infection and bacteria with its antibacterial and antifungal properties.

Minced garlic is great sautéed with spinach and a little olive oil for a simple side dish, and minced garlic is also a delicious addition to homemade salsa. Tip: buy garlic pre-minced to save time and mess.

9. Barley and oats

These grains contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber with antimicrobial and antioxidant capabilities that have been found to stimulate the immune system. According to a study published in Physiology & Behavior, beta-glucan can help prime the immune system and support resistance against invading pathogens.

Barley is a great addition to soups and salads thanks to its wonderfully chewy texture, and oats can make an easy and nutritious breakfast. 

If you’re looking for a breakfast that’s ready for you when you wake up, give overnight oats with almond milk a try — a few minutes of quick prep the night before will have breakfast ready and waiting by morning.

10. Fish

Selenium, which is especially plentiful in shellfish such as oysters, lobsters, crabs and clams, helps white blood cells produce cytokines-proteins that help clear flu viruses out of the body.

In addition, salmon, mackerel and herring are rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation and increase airflow, protecting lungs from colds and respiratory infections. 

Mix canned salmon with half a mashed avocado, a spoonful of Dijon mustard, and a spoonful of mayonnaise to make a flavorful and nutrient-dense salmon salad that’s great in a wrap, on a sandwich or simply with crackers.


Boosting your immune system with the foods that you eat is more accessible than you might think — and more important, too. 

“Research shows that various nutrient deficiencies — vitamins A, C, E, B, D, selenium, zinc, iron, copper and folic acid — can increase your susceptibility to disease,” said Lydon. “In fact, malnutrition is the most common cause of immune-deficiency in the world, so making sure you’re eating adequately is key for immune health.” 

Stock up on these natural illness fighters — mushrooms, sweet potatoes, almonds, yogurt, leafy greens, green and black tea, cabbage, garlic, barley and oats and fish — on your next trip to the grocery store.

Anne Mauney is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Masters of Public Health in Nutrition, and lives in the Washington D.C. area with her husband and two children. She has been sharing simple and delicious healthy recipes on her blog fANNEtastic food since 2009, and her recipes and nutrition tips have been featured in numerous online and print publications.

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