The health of our immune systems has taken center stage over the past few years due to the global pandemic. As we move into winter’s cold and flu season, it’s collectively even more at the front of our minds.
While bolstering your immune system is a complex and individual science, what you put on your plate certainly plays a role. For example, the state of our gut influences our immune defenses, and a healthy gut requires a nutritious diet.
We spoke to two nutritionists about the link between immunity, gut health, and diet alongside the foods you should and shouldn’t be eating…
Meet the Experts
Nishtha Patel is a functional health clinical practitioner.
Anne Iarchy is a health coach and author of "5 Steps to Releasing the Real You."
The link between gut health and immunity
All processes within the body are linked, including the gut and the immune system. So if you have issues with one, it can affect the other. In the gut, this is all down to the microbiome, an ecosystem of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. “To remain healthy, one should have a robust and well-rounded host of beneficial bacteria residing in the gut,” functional health clinical practitioner Nishtha Patel explains.
If the ratio between good and bad bacteria is imbalanced, this is known as dysbiosis. “This can play havoc with your immune system leading to issues such as inflammation and quicker susceptibility to infections,” she clarifies. Eating a varied, nutritionally rich, balanced diet can ensure your microbiome is in its best possible health. This equates to a healthy gut and strong immune defenses.
How to eat for strong immunity
Choose whole foods
Always prioritize eating foods in their most original form. “Avoid or limit processed foods that are often laden with chemicals, sugars, or preservatives. Some of these can be detrimental to gut health and drive inflammation,” Patel says.
Eat the rainbow
The more colors you can eat, the better. The gut bacteria love variety so mix it up as much as possible. “Try and include at least one color of the rainbow as each color has different nutritional properties,” Patel notes. By eating this way, you are helping every part of the body stay as healthy as possible. “For example, dark pigmented fruits such as blueberries or plums are great for the brain while reds like tomatoes or strawberries are good for the heart,” she adds.
Mix it up
Even eating a variety of the same fruit or vegetable can make a difference. “If you eat one variety of apple every week (say a green one called Granny Smith) the following week, get pink ladies, and then the week after that, opt for Jazz. Eating different varieties of the same fruits and vegetables can increase the diversity in the gut,” Patel says.
Aim for 30 plant-based foods a week
Similarly, if you’re looking for a goal regarding a variety of whole foods, thirty is the number to go for. Again, this may sound like a lot, but it is not restricted just to fruits and vegetables. “This can also include nuts and seeds, herbs and spices, legumes, grains, beans, dark chocolate, and herbal teas,” Patel clarifies.
Vitamin C is your friend
Freshly squeezed orange juice is often on the shopping list when you’re coming down with a cold, and rightly so — vitamin C is good for the immune system. However, it isn’t just OJ that will help. “Bell peppers, broccoli, and even kiwi fruit have higher levels of Vitamin C than an orange,” health coach Anne Iarchy points out.
Up the antioxidants
Antioxidants are known to strengthen the immune system. Much like antioxidant-rich skincare (think vitamin C serum) stops damaging free radicals in the skin, the same happens within the body when you eat them. This improves cell processes and helps the immune system. “Berries, green tea, artichokes, kale beets, and spinach are all high in antioxidants,” Iarchy highlights.
Help the microbiome
The aforementioned microbiome needs some TLC. “Our gut microbes help break down our food so that we can absorb the useful parts like vitamins and minerals and discard the rest,” Iarchy clarifies. Of course, the best way to do this is by eating probiotics, normally found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut. “Ideally, you’d eat at least one of those daily,” Iarchy recommends.
Fill up on fiber
Fiber plays a key role in getting things moving in the gut and naturally boosts gut health. “It is known as a prebiotic, and this is fuel for the good bacteria in the gut known as probiotics,” Patel says. To increase your fiber intake, ensure you’re eating whole grains and vegetables at every meal.
Some things are worth skipping
Those classic culprits are worth avoiding wherever possible, or more realistically, keep them to a minimum. “Avoid sugar, including alcohol, fried foods, processed foods, and most caffeine (green tea is an exception). These will feed our bad bacteria in the gut. We all have bad bacteria. The goal is to have more of the good ones and minimize the bad ones,” Iarchy says.