“The immune system is the body’s defense mechanism that works tirelessly to protect us from substances that can make us ill, like bacteria, viruses, parasites, and environmental toxins,” says Karen Ansel, RDN, who’s based in Syosset, New York, and is the author of Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging. And, she explains, “like the rest of the body, the immune system requires certain nutrients to perform at its best.” In fact, certain nutrients have a direct effect on the production and activity of immune cells and antibodies, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
So how do we support our immune systems with what’s on our menu? “Diet-wise, the best thing you can do for a strong immune system is to focus on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein,” Ansel says. “Fruits and vegetables are filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support the body’s immune soldiers so that they can quickly spring into action to fight off foreign invaders, while protein helps build infection-fighting antibodies,” says Ansel.
On the flip side, an ultra-processed diet, as well as a Western diet high in sugar, alcohol, and red meat while low in fruits and veggies, can be harmful to your immune system and even suppress it. “That doesn’t mean that you have to nix these entirely, but you may want to consume them in moderation to keep your immune system strong and healthy,” Ansel adds.
Check out these recipes below that all contain immune-supporting superstar ingredients, from turmeric to tangerines, and ginger to garlic. Then consider making one of these dishes today to keep your immune system running smoothly.
1. Carrot-Ginger Immune-Boosting Soup
Key Immunity Ingredient: Turmeric
Nothing is more comforting than a bowl of soup — and that’s especially true when you know that the soup may be supporting your immune system.
“The two main spices, turmeric and ginger, contain compounds that have been tied to immune health,” says recipe creator Sarah Gold Anzlovar, RDN, the Boston-based founder of Sarah Gold Nutrition. For example, a study published in the journal Cell Division in October 2015 found that curcumin, a compound in turmeric, may work with the immune system to potentially combat or help prevent certain types of cancer.
Meanwhile, the other key ingredients in the recipe have an immune system impact. “Carrots contain vitamin A, an important vitamin for immunity,” says Anzlovar, and a review published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in September 2018 backs up this effect. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), 1 cup of chopped carrots contains 1,070 micrograms of vitamin A, which covers about 118 percent of the daily value (DV).
And,” Anzlovar adds, “the prebiotics found in onions play a role in keeping the gut healthy, which is the center of the immune system,” which research published in March 2019 in Foods and information from Johns Hopkins University echos.
2. Kale, Tangerine, Pepita Salad
Key Immunity Ingredient: Tangerine
“Oranges are great, but for a slightly different taste of citrus, try tangerines,” says Marisa Moore, RDN, a culinary and integrative dietitian in Atlanta, who created this recipe.
“This salad includes fresh tangerines and swaps in tangerine juice in the vinaigrette for an extra dose of immune-supporting vitamin C,” Moore explains. According to the USDA, two small tangerines are an excellent source of vitamin C: Together, they provide 40.6 milligrams of the nutrient, covering a whopping 45 percent of the DV. A review published in November 2017 in the journal Nutrients suggests that vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that supports various cellular functions in the immune system.
Snacking on tangerines may also help fend off an iron nutrient deficiency. “Vitamin C is essential for healthy cells and healing, and can help your body absorb more plant-based iron when eaten together,” Moore adds. Iron is the most common nutrient deficiency in the United States, per the University of Michigan.
3. Cinnamon Almonds
Key Immunity Ingredient: Cinnamon
A sweet treat that also may help your immune system stay in top shape? Now that’s a win-win!
“Not only does cinnamon taste good, but it may have properties that boost immune responses,” says Natalie Rizzo, RDN, who’s based in New York City. “Research in animals suggests that the cinnamon has polyphenols — plant compounds — that fight inflammation and affect immune response,” says Rizzo. While Rizzo does say that the amount of cinnamon used in the research is much larger than a person uses in a recipe, it’s still worth adding this delicious and healthy spice to your food.
“These cinnamon-roasted almonds not only have anti-inflammatory cinnamon but also almonds that are rich in ‘good’ fats and vitamin E,” Rizzo adds. Harvard notes that while almonds are calorie-dense (per ¼ cup, there are 180, per the USDA — so eat in moderation), they’re nutrient-dense, and a majority of fat they contain is the “good” monounsaturated variety. Eating nuts in general may help decrease inflammation in the body, the university notes.
4. Salmon en Papillote (Salmon in Parchment)
Key Immunity Ingredient: Salmon
Keep your immune system fighting the good fight — with the help of fish. With this salmon dish, you not only get protein (the fish contains 5.8 g per oz, notes the USDA), but also perks for your immune system.
Recipe creator Amy Kimberlain, RDN, a Miami-based registered dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Media spokesperson, explains that without sufficient protein, your body won’t produce enough immune cells. This could leave you more susceptible to respiratory, gastrointestinal, and urinary tract infections, past research suggests. “Additionally, the amino acids that are found in protein help form the building blocks of all of our body’s cells — including those cells that help power our immune system,” says Kimberlain, and as other research explains.
The other great immunity-supporting perk? The salmon’s omega-3 fatty acids. “Choose the healthy fats, specifically, from omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, halibut, and sardines, which help fight the inflammation and also allow your immune system to defend against the invading antigens,” says Kimberlain.
A review on the effects of omega-3 fatty acids and the immune system, published in the International Journal of Molecular Science in October 2019, concurs that there are numerous — and complex — ways that omega-3s may assist your immune system, like helping maintain cell membrane fluidity (which allows transport of nutrients into the cell, and gets rid of waste from the inside).
5. Healthy No-Mayo Broccoli Salad
Key Immunity Ingredient: Broccoli
Broccoli doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it can really pack a punch when it comes to helping your immune system function at its best.
“Preliminary studies suggest that sulfurous vegetables like broccoli may increase the body’s levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that is produced in the body that helps it resist oxidative stress,” says recipe maker Kaleigh McMordie, RDN, the Lubbock, Texas–based founder of LivelyTable.com.
For example, a review published in the journal Nutrients in September 2019 notes that glutathione plays a role in the regulation of the immune system by improving the activity of “natural killer cells,” which rapidly respond to virus-infected cells. And earlier research suggests that other compounds found in broccoli may also help the immune system; the study found that mice, when given a compound in broccoli, had more proteins in the blood called cytokines, which help regulate the immune system. Of course, more studies in humans are needed.
Plus, this recipe is made with Greek yogurt rather than mayonnaise, and yogurt is another immune-boosting ingredient (more on that later).
6. Easiest Blueberry Coconut Bake
Key Immunity Ingredient: Blueberries
“This is immunity-boosting because of the blueberries, which are packed with antioxidants and vitamin C as well as the oats themselves,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Champagne Nutrition, who created this recipe. According to the USDA, 1 cup of blueberries offers 14.4 mg of vitamin C, covering 16 percent of the DV, making them a good source of the nutrient.
Past research shows that a compound called pterostilbene found in blueberries works with vitamin D to help a specific gene involved in the immune system. And a review published in March 2020 in Advances in Nutrition found that one of the benefits of blueberries is their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers, thanks in part to the blueberries’ anthocyanin pigments, which give the fruit its blue color, according to an August 2017 review in Food & Nutrition Research.
Meanwhile, she says, oats contain a type of fiber called beta-glucan, which past research shows supports immunity.
7. Pumpkin Superfood Energy Bites
Key Immunity Ingredient: Mushrooms
Give your energy bites a little extra oomph with the secret ingredient in this recipe: mushrooms.
“These snack balls are great little immunity boosters because they contain reishi mushrooms, which are known to help support immunity, and ginger, which contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties,” says recipe maker Maggie, Michalczyk, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and founder of Once Upon a Pumpkin.
A small study published in April 2015 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition even found that eating mushrooms daily (subjects ate the shiitake variety) could positively alter your immune system, in part by increasing secretory immunoglobulin A in the saliva, which is an antibody that plays an important role in protecting you from mucus pathogens.
Another past study looked at research on a variety of mushrooms, including reishi, and analyzed the potential impact of mushrooms on cancer. Researchers suggested that because of the mushrooms’ varied immunological mechanisms (for example, increasing production of Th-1 cytokines, which triggers a response that helps kill parasites within cells, other research shows) they may, potentially, be a promising complement to treatment.
8. Cucumber Yogurt Soup
Key Immunity Ingredient: Yogurt
Probiotics — both in supplements and food sources — get a lot of attention for their gut-health perks, as Harvard notes, but strains of probiotics or “good bacteria” found in some yogurt may also have immune-supporting benefits.
“Some strains of probiotics may support healthy immune system function, which can help the body mount a strong defense against diseases and viral infections, although more research is needed,” says Rye, New York–based recipe maker Malina Malkani, RDN, founder of Solve Picky Eating and the author of Simple & Safe Baby-Led Weaning.
“Probiotics can be found in fermented foods like yogurt, one of the main ingredients in this cool and refreshing summer soup, which also contains garlic,” says Malkani. “When eaten regularly, garlic may help prevent cold and flu, and reduce the severity of cold and flu symptoms.” The Cleveland Clinic points to a compound found in garlic called allicin that’s regarded as a nutrient that helps keep the immune system healthy.
9. Sesame Ginger Dressing
Key Immunity Ingredient: Ginger
Take your salads and sautés to the next level with this delicious dressing that doubles as an immune-supporting star.
“This sesame ginger dressing is loaded with superfoods, like sesame seeds, lemon, garlic, and ginger, and is great on salads, in wraps, and as a veggie dip — and can even be used as a stir-fry sauce,” says Chicago-based Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, who created the recipe.
Prior research suggests that ginger may activate immune cells and have antibacterial properties, while a past study also indicated it can help fight inflammation, which can play a role in cancer prevention. Translation: Time to sprinkle some atop your next savory meal.
10. Vanilla Matcha Carrot Smoothie
Key Immunity Ingredient: Green Tea (Matcha)
In addition to vitamin A-packed carrots, as the USDA notes, this energizing smoothie recipe from Chicago-based Sara Haas, RDN, features matcha, a powdered form of green tea, so you’ll get a slight caffeine kick, as the Mayo Clinic notes. Another potential perk of antioxidant-packed green tea: a stronger immune system.
“Green tea may support the immune system — the myriad of antioxidants, including catechin polyphenols, found in green tea fight inflammation, which is associated with immunity,” says Christine M. Palumbo, RDN, a nutrition communicator in Naperville, Illinois, and as research notes.
For example, past research has shown that green tea may aid production of T cells, which are important players in the way your immune system functions. Also, the researchers note that green tea may suppress autoimmune diseases. Other past research shows it may even protect you against some cancers. Just know, many studies on the health benefits of green tea use concentrated amounts of the antioxidants found inside (and these amounts often can’t be reached by drinking a realistic number of cups).
11. Plant-Based Sweet Potato Nachos
Key Immunity Ingredient: Sweet Potatoes
For a healthier plate of nachos, ditch packaged tortilla chips for fresh sweet potatoes. “These plant-based sweet potato nachos are an excellent source of beta carotene, an antioxidant that gives sweet potatoes their gorgeous golden hue,” says recipe creator Christy Brissette, RDN, the president of 80 Twenty Nutrition in Chicago, and as research and the USDA note.
“Eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods helps boost your immune system and protects your body’s cells from free radical damage; this can help lower your risk of cancer and heart disease,” she adds.
And sweet potatoes’ perks don’t stop there. Compared with corn tortilla chips, sweet potatoes are higher in fiber and lower on the glycemic index, according to the University of Sydney. Brissette likes to call sweet potatoes and black beans, which are also called for in this recipe, “slow carbs.” These kinds of foods may lower inflammation even more than low-carb diets, according to a May 2020 article published in Nutrition Reviews. Time to rethink this classic bar food.
12. Stuffed Peppers With Miracle or Cauliflower Rice
One medium red bell pepper contains more than 2 times the amount of vitamin C in an orange, points out Alix Turoff, RDN, a New York City-based certified personal trainer who created this recipe. Indeed, the pepper contains 152 mg of vitamin C (covering 169 percent of the DV), whereas an orange has 63.4 mg (offering a still-impressive 70 percent of the DV).
According to Oregon State University, vitamin C is especially good at stimulating the cells that attack foreign bacteria and viruses. Vitamin C, they say, also might help increase levels of antibodies. Those are proteins that protect you from getting a disease again, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
So, why not serve this dish along with the vitamin C-packed tangerine salad, for an immune-supporting one-two punch. Do know that since vitamin C is highly heated sensitive, the amount that you’ll actually get from the cooked bell pepper in this recipe will be much lower than from a raw red pepper.
13. Spinach Salad With Jicama, Black Beans, and Lime Vinaigrette
Key Immunity Ingredient: Spinach
“Spinach and other green leafy vegetables are rich in antioxidants, including vitamins A, C, E, and K, which fight off free radicals to keep us healthy and disease-free,” says Westchester, New York–based recipe maker Jessica Levinson, RDN, a culinary nutrition expert, and as the USDA notes.
“They’re also rich in magnesium, which has been shown to play a beneficial role in supporting a healthy immune system,” says Levinson. A past review showed that magnesium helps produce immunoglobulins, which are antibodies that help destroy bacteria and viruses.
“Additionally, the black beans in this salad may help keep your immune system strong thanks to the B vitamin folate, which is involved in the production and maintenance of our bodies’ cells,” says Levinson, and which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states.
14. Garlic Sweet Potato Air Fries
Key Immunity Ingredient: Garlic
Don’t let the potent smell of garlic scare you away from using it liberally in your meals.
The Cleveland Clinic suggests eating one-half of a raw garlic clove daily, but if you don’t want to go all the way (we don’t blame you if so), you can try this recipe from Chicago-based Victoria Shanta Retelny, RDN. “If you can use fresh minced garlic in this recipe, you’ll get an even bigger immune supporting hit,” says Retelny. “Garlic is an herb in the allium family (like onions, leeks, and chives), which contains a variety of compounds that can support immune function and health.”
Garlic, as researchers point out in an review published in April 2015 in the Journal of Immunology Research has been used for centuries as a health-promoting ingredient. And studies now suggest it stimulates certain cells that play important roles in the immune system, such as macrophages (which detect and destroy harmful bacteria) and lymphocytes (which are white blood cells that help control your body’s immune response).
Researchers are even looking into whether garlic can be used to support the immune system to potentially help prevent COVID-19.
Plus, garlic also ups your food’s flavor. “Garlic can be a great way to make immune-fighting vegetables taste better, so if it helps you eat more healthy foods it’s a great choice,” says Ansel.
15. Vegan Peanut Curry With Chickpeas and Sweet Potato
Key Immunity Ingredient: Chickpeas
The list of good-for-you benefits goes on and on with this recipe, starting with the sweet potatoes, which, as mentioned, contain immune-supportive vitamins A and C.
“Pairing the fat-soluble vitamin A with the fat in the coconut milk and peanut butter in this recipe will help you better absorb it,” says Deborah Murphy, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian who created this recipe. (Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means it’s stored in the liver and fatty tissues, according to Colorado State University.)
Plus, as the Cleveland Clinic notes, the chickpeas in this meal are worth eating for a healthy immune system because they contain vitamin B6, which is a crucial vitamin for influencing how the immune system operates. For example, past research shows that when critically ill patients were injected with vitamin B6, their T-lymphocyte and T-helper cell numbers significantly increased after two weeks (and those cells are crucial to the body’s immune system). Meanwhile, there were no significant changes to the control group’s immune system after 14 days. Just an FYI: More studies are needed because many studies on vitamin B6 use injections rather than food. Furthermore, this study was done in critically ill patients, and results may be different in a healthy population.