Eating for Immunity (How Not to Get Sick)


The winter doesn’t have to be the “cold and flu” season for you. What you eat can support, or suppress your immune system.

Last night I had the pleasure to speak on a Eating for Immunity panel hosted by WellBe (a new health and wellness content site that is not woo woo), alongside Dr. Vincent Pedre, a gut health expert and functional medicine doctor and Basu Ratnam, the founder of ayurvedic fast-casual NYC restaurant, Inday.

Here, I wanted to share some of the top tips from the evening.

What’s the Connection between Digestive System and Immune System?

Seventy-eighty percent of immune tissue resides in the digestive system. Making the two inextricably linked. When your digestive system is having issues, your immune system won’t be as strong and effective as it can be, which means the chances are higher that you will get sick when exposed to a pathogen.

In a healthy body, with a healthy digestive system and a strong immune system, it’s capable to fight off many common pathogens, without you ever feeling sick. In other words, your body doesn’t give the pathogen a chance to “take up residence”. It destroys it and or escorts it out swiftly.

What Foods Boost the Immune System? What Foods Prevent the Flu? What Foods Prevent Colds?

It’s important to clarify that foods in and of themselves don’t prevent you from being sick. But rather, certain foods support the digestive system, including the gut and liver, and immune function, making your body stronger to fight infections on its own. That’s why the goal should be to eat foods that support immune health every single day, not just when you feel a cold coming on. By building up a strong internal terrain, you lower your chances of getting sick in the first place.

When it comes to eating for immunity I suggest:

  • Eat more fresh vegetables and fruit. Packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, when you base your diet around these foods, you set yourself up for good health. While we all know they’re good for us, 9-out-of-10 Americans aren’t eating enough daily. So, aim to make at least 50%, if not 75% of your plate veggies at as many meals as possible.  
  • Eat a rainbow of vegetables (meaning don’t get stuck in a kale and sweet potato rut). Color is an indicator of what nutrients and antioxidants a food contains, so switch up your greens and veggies daily, or at least every few days, to ensure you’re feeding your body a wide spectrum of nutrients.
  • Focus on cruciferous vegetables, which are known to support your liver and body’s detox processes. This is important for keeping your immune system strong. Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, and watercress are examples.
  • Flavor your food will garlic, ginger, and onions. These foods all contain anti-microbial properties and are well known for their immune system support.
  • Add more mushrooms to your plate. Mushrooms have been used traditionally in Asia for centuries to support the immune system, and modern research is validating why. According to a 2005 report published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, mushrooms contain “compounds and complex substances with antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, antiallergic, immunomodulating, anti-inflammatory, antiatherogenic, hypoglycemic, and hepatoprotective activities.” (1)  While evidence suggests some of the most powerful immune-boosting mushrooms are the more exotic types, like maitake, shiitake, and chaga, even the humble cremini and portobello mushrooms offer support.

What Foods Harm the Immune System?

In addition to what you do eat, it’s also important is what you don’t eat. For a healthy body and a strong immune system, I suggest:

Avoid sugar and refined, high glycemic foods

  • Dr. Pedre noted that sugar has been found to inhibit your body’s ability to fight off pathogens for up to 5 hours after you consume it. (2)
  • He also warned against simple carbs, such as bread, pasta, crackers, and yes, even fruit juice, suggesting they have a similar effect.
  • In general, highly refined, processed foods, loaded with calories but nutritionally bankrupt, are not doing your body, or immune system any good.

What Do You Eat If you Have the Flu? Or a Cold?

If you’re already sick there are a few remedies both I, and Dr. Pedre turn to.

Fresh Ginger

Studies have found that fresh ginger effectively fights respiratory viruses. The same results were not found in powdered form, so use ginger in cooking or teas. I like to pour hot water over a few slices of it and steep for a tea. Dr Pedre mentioned he takes a ginger cayenne shot whenever he feels a scratchy or sore throat coming on.

You can try my simple 2 ingredient Kick-A-Cold Tea, which also uses fresh thyme for added anti-viral activity.

Elderberry Extract

Black elderberry juice can inhibit the growth of influenza viruses and shorten the severity of symptoms and the duration by 3 days, while enhancing antibody levels against the virus. It helps reduce swelling in the sinuses and reduces congestion.

Elderberry can be taken as a liquid, syrup or tincture, as well as a lozenge and in capsule form.


Laboratory tests show garlic is a powerful anti-viral, and is also effective against many types of bacteria and parasites. Garlic’s medicinal benefit comes from allicin, a compound that is formed only when garlic is chopped, minced, or crushed. So to get the most benefit, chop or mince garlic 10 minutes before eating it.

Bone Broth

Fresh, homemade bone broth is rich in a variety of minerals and nutrients that support gut health and help you expel mucus more easily. (3) Personally, I don’t have any desire to make it, so order it fresh from Brodo in NYC when I’m feeling sick. Dr. Pedre is a huge fan of bone broth as it is believed to help “heal and seal” the gut.

Zinc-Rich Foods / Supplements

Zinc is an essential mineral that plays an important role in immunity. Those who avoid meat, in particular, can be at risk for a zinc deficiency. The recommended daily intake (RDI) is 15 mg/day.

Studies show that adequate zinc consumption, or supplementation, not only prevents the onset of colds and flu, but also decrease the duration of them by a day or more, if taken at the onset of symptoms.

Some foods that contain zinc are oysters, crab, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, cashews, black beans, and shiitake mushrooms.

Vitamin D Supplement

Dr. Pedre said he takes mega doses of Vitamin D (that’s right D not C) when he feels a cold or flu coming on. I have been saying this for years, Vitamin C won’t cure your cold. There are a number of studies that suggest Vitamin D is beneficial.

He said he takes 50,000IU, (so he takes ten 5,000IU Vitamin D pills) when he’s sick. He said he never had any adverse reactions from this mega-dose, and recovers much much faster.

Stay healthy my friends!

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Hi, I’m Maria and I’m an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach.

I help busy women lose weight or clear up their acne by developing healthier eating habits, based on a plant-based paleo diet.

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