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Jamie Pronschinske: Support your immune function with good nutrition

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Maintaining a strong immune system seems more important than ever with the COVID-19 pandemic now overlapping the flu season.

Mayo's Jamie Pronschinske


As a dietitian, I have gotten numerous queries over the past several months about recommended foods, supplements and diet patterns to “boost” immune function. While it is true that nutrition plays a large role in immune function, diet recommendations for the prevention of acute illnesses, like COVID-19 and the flu, don’t look a whole lot different than general guidelines for healthy eating.

I’ll start by saying that the concept of “boosting” our immune system through diet is flawed as “boosting” refers to something that is stimulated above the normal level.

A good diet cannot “boost” our immune system but it is important for us to maintain a functional immune system by avoiding immunodeficiency due to malnutrition or micronutrient deficiencies.

It is important to note that no single food or nutrient will prevent illness. Additionally, our immune systems are incredibly complex and are influenced by a variety of other factors including stress level, age, sleep, and other medical conditions.

With that being said, there are a few key micronutrients that have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells:

  • Vitamin E works as an antioxidant to protect the integrity of cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals.

o Sources: seeds, nuts, vegetables oils, peanut butter

  • Vitamin A helps protect against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy.

o Sources: orange and red fruits and vegetables like carrots, apricots, bell peppers

  • Vitamin D helps regulate antimicrobial proteins that can directly kill pathogens.

o Sources: sunlight, fatty fish like salmon, egg yolks, fortified dairy

  • Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies and the production, function and movement of white blood cells.

o Sources: citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, strawberries, tomatoes

  • Iron is a component of enzymes critical for the functioning of immune cells.

o Sources: red meat, beans, nuts, fortified breakfast cereals

  • Zinc is needed for wound healing and supports immune response.

o Sources- meats, whole grains, milk, seeds, nuts

It is advised that people obtain these nutrients from food rather than supplements as foods contain more health promoting benefits.

For most, a balanced diet will supply adequate amounts of nutrition to maintain a strong immune system.

However, certain populations like those who are pregnant, the elderly and those who are critically ill, are not able to eat a variety of nutrition foods or have increased nutrients needs. In these cases, vitamin and mineral supplements may help to fill nutritional gaps.

A general multivitamin/mineral supplement providing no more than 100% of your RDA can be used and is generally safe for many people. Your physician may recommend further supplementation based on your lab values or medical status.

Please consult with them before beginning any supplement. Avoid “mega doses” or supplements that supply greater than one hundred percent of your RDA as these often do not offer any additional benefit and in some cases may be harmful. Remember that supplements are not a substitute for a healthy diet as they do not contain all of the benefits that we get from food.

If you are looking to try a new recipe that supplies nutrients needed for good immune function, consider one of the Mayo Clinic recipes below:

Grilled Cod with Crispy Citrus Salad

Serves 2

  • 8 ounces cod
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 ½cups chopped spinach
  • 1 ½ cups shredded kohlrabi
  • 1 cup diced celery
  • 1 ½ cups shredded carrot
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • ¾ cup chopped red bell pepper
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • Zest and juice of 1 orange
  • 1 large grapefruit cut into segments
  • 1 medium orange cut into segments
  • Black pepper to taste

Directions: Spray a grill or broiler pan with cooking spray. Turn on grill or heat broiler. Place cod on grill or broiler pan and brush lightly with oil.

Grill or broil 3 to 4 inches from heat for about 10 minutes — or until fish flakes easily with a fork. The fish should reach an internal temperature of 145 F. Set aside.

In a large bowl, toss together remaining ingredients except for grapefruit and orange segments. Divide salad between two plates. Top with cod and citrus pieces and black pepper to taste.

Per Serving (3 ounce cod + 4 cups salad): 412 calories, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 236 mg sodium, 50 g carbohydrates, 26 g protein, 13 g fiber

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus

Serves 16

  • 2 cups chickpeas
  • 1 cup roasted red bell pepper, slices, seeded
  • 2 tablespoons white sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1¼ teaspoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions: In a food processor, process all ingredients until smooth.

Serving (3 tablespoons): 53 calories, 2 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 126 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrates, 2g protein, 2 g fiber

Jamie Pronschinske, RDN, CD is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, WI


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