Nutrition and Immunity: When Science and Consumer Interest Collide
Immunity has been an area of interest for our patients and clients for several years, but curiosity around this topic has recently skyrocketed – and for good reason. Google Trends data indicates a substantial uptick in searches related to “immunity” at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, according to Innova Market Insights, immunity (categorized as “In Tune with Immune”) is one of the top 10 food and beverage trends identified for 2021, with survey data indicating “six out of ten global consumers are increasingly looking for food and beverage products that support their immune health.”
With this growing interest in nutrition, healthy habits and supplements to boost immunity, how do we as health professionals guide our clients, patients and students toward science-backed, nutritionally balanced choices?
Start With Science: Immune Boosting Diet = Healthy Eating Pattern
Research suggests that diet influences the immune system. It likely comes as no surprise to you that nutrition and healthy habits are the cornerstone of a strong immune response. And while there is no magic pill, we can help our clients put the Dietary Guidelines for Americans – a well-balanced, five food group–based approach to eating that provides essential nutrients – into practice. Additionally, a healthy dietary pattern can help better prepare the body for microbial attacks and excessive inflammation.
With 9 in 10 Americans falling below the daily vegetable recommendation, 8 out of 10 falling short on the daily fruit recommendation, and about 9 in 10 consuming less than adequate amounts of dairy foods, by simply helping our clients work toward making their plate look more like MyPlate at every meal, we can help them meet nutrient needs while working to optimize immune health.
Encourage Intake of Nutrients That Support Immune Health
While a nutritionally adequate, varied diet is of primary importance, a number of specific nutrients have been identified for their role in strengthening the immune system:
- Protein plays a crucial role in antibody production.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A and vitamin C as well as a variety of phytochemicals, such as polyphenols and carotenoids, are believed to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
- Vitamin D has been proposed to interact with cell entry receptors, inhibiting virus particles from entering the cell.
- Zinc and selenium are important for normal, healthy immune function.
- Fiber and probiotics help improve the gut microbiome.
Meeting nutrient needs through food should be our first line of defense, specifically because research continues to suggest that the health benefits from the foods we eat are not only the result of a particular nutrient we get from that food, but rather the mix of nutrients and how they interact within a more complex structure. For example, eating dairy foods as part of an overall healthy diet is one way to get the nutrients you need for normal immune function; milk contains vitamins A and D, protein, selenium and zinc. Cheese and yogurt also contain protein, and yogurt is a good source of zinc and probiotics. As health care providers and nutrition educators, we can leverage this information to help patients and clients reach their health goals. As a last resort, when nutrient needs can’t be met through food alone, supplementation may be warranted.
Focus on a Healthy Microbiome
A healthy microbiome is also important for a healthy immune system. While there are few studies looking directly at the role of nutrition on the gut microbiota as it relates to viral infections (such as COVID-19), it is clear that nutrition is key for a healthy gut and that a more a favorable gut microbiome composition is associated with lower systemic inflammation. We can help our patients improve gut health by encouraging a high-fiber diet, with good sources of probiotics and prebiotics.
Turn the Science Into Easy Application
Here are just a few ideas for meals and snacks that provide those immune-boosting nutrients:
- Yogurt, oats, nuts and berries
- Cottage cheese and tomatoes
- Brazil nuts and carrots
- Beans with cheese and whole-grain chips
- Tuna-stuffed bell pepper boats
Take a Holistic Approach to Health
In addition to a nutritious diet, an overall healthy lifestyle can help boost immunity.
- Encourage regular physical activity: Moderate physical activity has been shown to help strengthen the immune system through stimulation of cellular immunity.
- Focus on adequate sleep: Equally important to physical activity is adequate rest, with strong evidence to support an association between adequate sleep and enhanced immunity.
- Work toward a healthy BMI: Obesity is known to impair the immune function due to the metabolic stress and a tendency towards inflammation.
- Emphasize stress management: Stress and immunity is a growing area of scientific study, and while the specifics are yet to be determined, it is clear that there are far-reaching implications of stress on the immune system.