Foods That Help Prevent Colds and Flu

Eating the right foods might reduce your risk of getting a cold or the flu.
Cultura/Seb Oliver/Riser/Getty Images

Nutrition expert Lisa Hark Ph.D., RD, director of the Nutrition Education and Prevention Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, explains how your diet and lifestyle choices will help you to avoid getting a cold or influenza.

According to Hark, food and healthy lifestyle choices boost your immune system, and that can prevent you from coming down with colds and flu. The key is not waiting until you get sick to make these changes; you need to revamp your diet and lifestyle before the cold and flu bugs get to you.

How to Fight Off a Cold or Flu

Rely on real foods, not supplements. Foods are better than dietary supplements for the prevention of colds and flu because you get the whole nutritional package. For example, Hark points out, eating an orange is better for you than just taking vitamin C pills because the orange offers you a combination of nutrients -- magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin B-6, and antioxidant-rich flavonoids.

While we know that vitamin C is necessary for a healthy immune system, studies don't show that taking massive doses of vitamin C helps to prevent colds and flu at all. However, we do know that eating fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C will help keep your immune system strong. Your immune system is what protects you from viral infections, and the foods you eat have a significant impact on your immune system's ability to fight off colds and flu.

The reason that fruits and vegetables do a better job of keeping your immune system ready is because they also contain vitamins A and E, as well as the flavonoids that work alongside vitamin C to keep your immune system and your whole body healthy.

Eat more fruits and vegetables. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables may help keep your immune system strong. People tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables in the winter, which is the opposite of what you should be doing. Everyone needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day to get adequate vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants -- all things we need for a healthy immune system.

One way to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables is to incorporate juice into your diet. Not just any juice will do, though. Make sure you choose 100-percent juices, as other juice drinks contain extra sugar and empty calories.

For the best prices, be sure to browse your grocery store's produce aisle for fresh fruits and vegetables that are in-season. Oranges and grapefruits are usually cheaper in the winter, so cold and flu season is the perfect time to load up on citrus fruits.

Hark assures that eating frozen fruits and vegetables is another economical and convenient way to improve your diet and prevent colds and flu. Frozen vegetable selections range from very inexpensive bags of peas, corn, and green beans to artfully combined fruits and vegetable dishes topped with delicate sauces that you simply pop in the microwave.

Make fruits and vegetables part of every meal. Add berries or sliced banana to your whole grain cereal at breakfast, and drink a glass of orange or grapefruit juice.

Pack a bunch of grapes or an apple with your sandwich for lunch, and top that sandwich with tomato slices, avocado, sprouts, and lettuce.

Start dinner with a salad or vegetable soup, or serve a big salad as a healthy meal. Keep a bowl of oranges, pluot, apples and pears on your counter top to grab as quick snacks. You can also store cut vegetables in your refrigerator, but remember they'll lose some nutritional value.

Round out your diet with healthy proteins and whole grains. Eat a balanced diet with lean meats, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Protein sources such as lean meats, dairy, eggs, and legumes are especially important because they supply the amino acids that your body needs to build the components of your immune system.

Eating lean meats also helps you avoid zinc and iron deficiency, both of which can affect your immune system.

Too Late -- You've Already Got a Cold or Flu

Good nutrition is still important after you catch a cold or influenza. Hark says that even when you are sick and don't have much of an appetite, you need to eat when you can. Focus on getting three meals per day, and don't forget to keep eating lots of fruits and vegetables. It is important to get enough energy from the foods you eat while you are recuperating -- you may not be running around and exerting much, but your body is working hard to get better.

Hark also stresses the importance of preventing dehydration. Drink fluids throughout the day such as water and juices. Tired of plain water? Add a splash of juice to water or seltzer for a little variety.

Eating a healthy diet is just part of the picture. Hark has other tips to help you stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands. Your hands come in contact with germs throughout the day. The best way to get rid of them is by washing your hands thoroughly. Wash your hands before preparing meals, after handling raw meats, and before serving foods. Make sure everyone at the table has washed their hands, as well.
  • Get enough restThe National Sleep Foundation says most kids don't get enough sleep, and many adults don't either. When you don't get enough sleep, you are more likely to get sick. If you're having trouble getting a good night's sleep, it may help to avoid eating late at night, or just have a bedtime snack.
  • Get your flu shots. Hark says that it doesn't matter whether you are young or old, getting a flu shot is a good way to prevent the flu. Vaccination is crucial for the elderly and people with respiratory conditions.
  • Get some exercise. There is strong evidence that individuals who exercise don't get sick as often. Exercise is important all year, even in the dark and cold of winter. Hark suggests having plans to keep active in the winter, such as walking on a treadmill, using exercise videos, jumping rope, or going to the gym. And don't forget to bring your workout gear when you travel; many hotels have workout rooms and swimming pools.

Source

Interview with Lisa Hark Ph.D., RD, director of Nutrition Education Programs of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, December 3, 2007.

Continue Reading