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As we enter the season of holidays (Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas) and move on to the New Year, a main concern on people’s mind is getting healthy. This usually involves many resolutions to exercise more and eat better, and this isn’t just for weight loss. This time of year is also prime flu season, and taking proactive steps to optimize the family’s diet can improve your chances of fighting off cold and flu viruses quickly.
Luckily, there are some simple suggestions that can help bolster the body’s defenses against untimely invaders. Most of these are safe for kids as well, and just generally good practice.
Immune-Boosting Diet for Cold & Flu Season
The old adage “you are what you eat” has never been more true. As the percentage of the population that is medically classified as overweight or obese rises steadily, it is no surprise that rates of cancer, disease, and other medical issues are rising as well.
For optimal health, I recommend a diet of high-quality proteins, abundant sources of beneficial fats, and adequate amounts of organic or locally grown vegetables, if available. You can also add certain supplements and herbs that can help support the body in fighting illness.
One of the disadvantages of the low-fat diet that has been promoted by the medical community for so long is the lower intake of protein that often accompanies it. Proteins are necessary for virtually every function the body performs.
Additionally, a low-fat diet is often a high carb diet, as foods like whole grains and starchy vegetables are considered “healthy” low-fat foods. This high carbohydrate diet can contribute to insulin resistance, obesity and eventually diabetes if continued over long periods of time.
As proteins are vital for every function of the body, they also perform an important role in immune function and weight maintenance. Antibodies are specialized proteins that help defend the body from illness and bacteria. Proteins are necessary for cell division which is vital in healing and growth, and proteins in the form of hormones and enzymes regulate chemical reactions in the body.
The adult body needs one gram of usable protein for every 2.2 pounds of body weight. This means that a 180-pound man would need around 80 grams of protein a day and a 145-pound woman would need about 65 grams a day.
I give a full list here, but good sources of healthy protein include the following:
- organic grass-fed beef
- free-range chicken
- organic raw dairy (if tolerated)
- real-food protein powder
- pastured eggs
- homemade bone broth and soups
Bone broth and soups made with bone broth are also a great way to bolster the immune system, which is why chicken soup is often associated with recovery from illness. Even if making soup from scratch isn’t in the cards, there are companies that make broth the real-food way and have quality ingredients.
This may sound foreign to you if you have followed a low-fat diet in the past, but more and more studies are proving that eating fat does not make you fat. In fact, recent research is showing that adequate fat intake is vital to weight loss. Fats provide concentrated energy and are important building blocks in hormones. Fats carry the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K.
Studies show that fats, including the much feared saturated fats, contribute to immune strength, bone strength, and can protect the liver. For optimal immune function, it is important to get adequate fats from healthy sources. A good rule of thumb to follow is to eat only fats that are minimally processed and from healthy animals or plants. These will be saturated and monounsaturated fats.
Some of the best sources of healthy fats include the following:
- olive oil
- coconut oil
- krill oil
- raw dairy
- pastured eggs
Avoid vegetable oils which are polyunsaturated fats, hydrogenated fats, and trans fats. These fats are dangerous to the body.
I don’t think I will have to do much to convince you that vegetables are healthy and important for optimal health and weight loss! The important thing is to get organic or locally grown vegetables whenever possible as organic varieties can contain up to three times the nutrients of conventional vegetables.
For weight loss and immune function, it is important to avoid eating too many starchy vegetables like potatoes and winter squash and to focus on:
- greens (spinach, lettuce, kale, mustard greens, etc)
- hot peppers
- mushrooms (technically a fungus)
- green beans
- snow peas
I get my vegetables in by drinking veggie smoothies and eating a salad or two green vegetables at every meal. The Wahls Protocol is another super-smart and simple way to pack more vegetables in the diet.
Avoid Sugar (and Other Empty Carbs)
I have talked about the health risks of sugar in the past and why I generally avoid it. Sugar is naturally present in many foods (like fruit) but on its own it contains:
- no nutrients
- no protein
- no healthy fats
- no enzymes
Digesting sugar actually pulls minerals from the body so you could even think of sugar as an anti-nutrient. Sugar intake is linked to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, insulin issues, and cholesterol issues among other health problems.
But it is especially important to avoid sugar when you’re sick or trying to avoid catching an illness. A 1973 study found that eating sugar (but not other forms of carbohydrates) plays a role in suppressing the immune system.
White flour and other processed grains can have the same health issues that sugar does, like spiking blood sugar. Stay away from all “white” foods when you’re fighting a bug or trying to avoid catching it.
Cold & Flu-Fighting Supplements
When you’re fighting an illness, especially if you’re not able to eat much, supplements can help support the body’s natural defenses. Here are some of my favorite supplements when someone in my family catches a cold or flu.
Saline Nasal Rinse
A saline rinse is a great way to help decongest the nose without resorting to pharmaceuticals. It’s so gentle that you can use it on kids and infants too. I make my own with Himalayan salt and warm water, but I’ve also used this one for convenience sake.
Xylitol Nasal Rinse
While saline nasal rinse can be effective for some cases of congestion, xylitol may be better. A 2011 study found that xylitol mixed with water is more helpful in treating congestion than saline solution. Xylitol nasal spray can be used in the same ways saline spray can.
Perhaps the most well-known vitamin for cold and flu, vitamin C is helpful for boosting the immune system. My family uses a real food form of vitamin C made from camu camu and acerola cherry. Read more about the benefits of vitamin C here.
Healthy levels of zinc in the body can help make a cold or flu virus less severe and shorter lived. In fact, one sign of zinc deficiency is recurring minor illness (like colds and flus). There is some debate about whether zinc supplementation is beneficial in all cases, so I opt for a low-dose zinc lozenge when we are really trying to boost immune systems.
I recommend doing a soup detox twice a year to eliminate built-up toxins and other things that make the body less than healthy. Doing a cleanse like this helps reset the body so it’s at optimal performance (and the recipes are easy and actually delicious too!). We’ve even done this soup detox as a family. I just serve extra protein and carbs for the kids on the side at each meal.
Bee propolis is the glue that holds the hive together and protects it from invaders of all kinds. Bee propolis is antibacterial and antimicrobial, making it a great remedy for sore throats and other cold symptoms. It’s also anti-inflammatory, immune-boosting, and cancer-fighting. My favorite way to get it is in this honey or this propolis throat spray (great for preventing or soothing sore throats!).
Another thing that helps weight loss and flu prevention is to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. More and more research is showing the importance of vitamin D in maintaining weight, preventing disease, and for optimal mental health.
The best source of vitamin D is that which is naturally produced by your body when exposed to sunlight in moderation, though this can be difficult in winter months. If you are unable to get 30 minutes of sunlight a day, supplementation may be necessary. If you choose to supplement, opt for vitamin D3, a more assimilable and healthy version than other forms.
Since vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, it can be dangerous if taken in excess. Consider having your vitamin D levels checked by a doctor before beginning any supplementation, though vitamin D obtained from sunlight is considered safe.
Herbal teas are a great way to stay hydrated during an illness, but they have medicinal purposes too. Many common herbs are helpful in treating mild illnesses like colds and flus.
Here are a few of my teas to boost the immune system:
- Mint – Great for digestive issues (including morning sickness!)
- Chamomile – A soothing and relaxing herbal tea that’s rich in magnesium
- Sage – This herb has antiseptic and astringent properties making it perfect for fighting infections like colds and flus
- Nettle Leaf – This herb is highly nutritious, especially paired with red raspberry, and can offer nutrients when you’re not feeling like eating
- Elderberry – We also make homemade elderberry syrup to help ward off illness
Best of all, many herbal teas are safe for kids and a great way to offer some extra comfort and vitamins when kids do come down with something.
Science supports what so-called “old wives’ tales” have known for a long time: fresh garlic has potent antimicrobial and antiviral properties. I crush a few cloves and take it raw in a spoonful of honey, but I’ve had to get more creative to get some of my kids to take it. See this post for a full list of garlic benefits and creative ways to sneak garlic into the family diet.
The Body’s Best Defense: A Healthy Diet!
We can’t help what germs go around during the cold and flu season, but we can protect ourselves by taking care of our bodies. Real food supports the body’s natural defenses and can help you stay well (and recover more quickly when you do get sick!).
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Ann Shippy, who is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and a certified Functional Medicine physician with a thriving practice in Austin, Texas. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
How do you keep from getting the flu? Share your tips below!