Healthy Immunity Diet Guidelines

By EatingWell Editors

These nutrition tips and guidelines can help keep your immune system strong.

Grab some carrots

Beta carotene is an orange-yellow pigment found in many fruits and vegetables, carrots most famously. Your body converts beta carotene as it’s needed into active vitamin A, a nutrient important for overall good health and immune functioning. Beta carotene is also a powerful antioxidant that helps protect cells from the damage of free radicals (unstable molecules that arise as by-products of cell metabolism).

While beta carotene might have the most name recognition, it is only one member of a large family of compounds called carotenoids that have numerous health and immune benefits. (Lutein, found in egg yolks, corn and leafy vegetables, and lycopene, most familiar in red fruits and vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon, are also in the carotenoid family.) Researchers believe that carotenoids work together in promoting health and preventing cancer. This is why getting carotenoids in food may be more beneficial than taking beta carotene supplements.

There has been a lot of conflicting research regarding the benefits of beta carotene and vitamin A in the prevention of cancer, cardiovascular disease, vision and aging. Although both beta carotene and vitamin A are beneficial and important for a strong immune system, supplementing with too much of either can have unintended negative health consequences; for example too much supplemental vitamin A is associated with increased risk of bone fractures. The current consensus is that eating plenty of beta carotene-rich foods is safe, and beneficial to overall health and maybe immunity, but taking a large-dose supplement of either beta carotene or vitamin A is not recommended and may even be harmful. There are plenty of delicious food sources of beta carotene, including oranges, papayas, tangerines and peaches, as well as red peppers, sweet potatoes and carrots.

Eat (don’t pop) your antioxidants

Antioxidants protect cells in the body from oxidation, a process that leads to cell damage. Oxidation may play an important role in atherosclerosis, or hardened arteries—the development of plaque in blood vessels that can cause high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.

Eating foods rich in antioxidants—including vitamins E and C, carotenoids and selenium—may bolster your immune system, lower your risk of heart disease and protect against cancer. According to studies, however, taking extra antioxidant pills probably has no benefit. The current recommendation by the American Heart Association is to make sure you include these important nutrients in your diet, but not to take supplements. Aim for a more plant-based diet, and you’re sure to get plenty: the most antioxidant-rich foods are from the plant kingdom, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Get mineral happy

Selenium is essential for a strong immune response and to fight infection. Studies suggest that very ill people or those with compromised immune systems can benefit from additional selenium, however otherwise healthy people are not likely to need extra doses. The mineral, found mostly in mushrooms and whole grains, may also reduce risk of some cancers. Best food sources of selenium are seafood: tuna, red snapper, lobster and shrimp. Other good food sources of this mineral include chicken (white meat), whole grains, brown rice, egg yolks, cottage cheese, sunflower seeds, garlic, Brazil nuts and lamb chops.

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