As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports flu outbreaks reaching epidemic levels and encourages all Americans to get flu shots, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds people they can help protect themselves against infections and boost their immunity through nutrition.
"A strong immune system doesn’t guarantee your body can fight off every flu bug, but it is a powerful defense," said registered dietitian and academy spokeswoman Heather Mangieri. "Good nutrition is essential to a strong immune response."
"A relatively mild deficiency of even one nutrient may make a difference in your body’s ability to fight infection," she said.
Mangieri recommends working with a registered dietitian to get the nutrition needed for a healthy defense, starting with an eating plan full of nutrients well-recognized for their role in building immunity:
Protein is part of the body’s defense mechanism. Eat a variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products and unsalted nuts and seeds.
Vitamin A helps regulate the immune system and protects people from infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy. Get this immune-boosting vitamin from sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, milk, eggs or foods labeled vitamin A fortified, such as milk or cereal.
Vitamin C protects against infection by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity. Vitamin C can be added to the diet by eating oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, red bell peppers, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice and foods fortified with vitamin C such as some cereals.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals and may improve immune function. Include vitamin E in the diet with fortified foods, sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower or safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter and spinach.
Zinc helps the immune system work properly and may help wounds heal. Zinc can be found in lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.
Other nutrients including vitamin B6, folate, selenium, iron and copper, as well as prebiotics and probiotics, may influence immune response also.
"A registered dietitian can help ensure you’re getting the nutrients your body needs to function and protect itself," Mangieri said. "An RD can also build an eating plan that works for your unique nutritional needs and lifestyle."
Beyond the flu, a healthy immune response may offer protection from other health problems, including arthritis, allergies, abnormal cell development and cancers.
Learn more about disease management and prevention at www.eatright.org, and encourage children to wash hands properly with the downloadable hand washing maze.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) seeks to improve the nation’s health and advance the profession of dietetics through research, education and advocacy. To locate a registered dietitian in your area see the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at www.eatright.org.
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