During cold and flu season, we all know to steer clear of people who are coughing and sneezing. We wash our hands often to avoid germs.
What else can we do? Research suggests that following the right diet can not only help prevent colds and flu, but help ease symptoms if we get sick.
Doctors have long known that people who don't get enough nutrients get more infections than well-nourished people. The immune system needs certain nutrients to be strong and work right, says Bruce Bistrian, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. And getting nutrients from foods is better than from supplements.
Now, research suggests that certain healthy foods can help our immunity even if we get enough nutrients.
David Leopold, MD, of the Scripps Center in San Diego, recommends people go into cold and flu season in good physical condition, with low stress, and with a plan for eating balanced meals that cut back on candy, soft drinks, fast food, and junk food.
Here is a 7-day menu to help you get started.
Day 1: Meals for Cold and Flu Season
Breakfast: Toasted whole wheat English muffin topped with scrambled eggs (made with egg substitute or an egg with higher omega-3s) and low-fat cheese. Add a glass of skim or low-fat milk or light soy milk, all containing vitamin D.
Lunch: Fresh roasted turkey and avocado sandwich with tomato and onion on whole wheat bread, cantaloupe cubes, and hot green tea.
Dinner: Spinach salad with grilled salmon and berries, topped with vinaigrette dressing made with canola oil, served with a bowl of hot vegetable soup.
How They Help Your Immune System
The four servings of whole grains and the salmon have selenium, which is needed for a strong immune system.
Spinach is high in several nutrients that help the immune system work, including folic acid, vitamin A, and vitamin C. The cantaloupe contributes even more vitamin A and C, and the avocado adds more folic acid.
Two meals contain at least one vitamin C–rich food (cantaloupe, spinach, and berries). High blood levels of vitamin C are associated with an enhanced immune system. Some studies suggest vitamin C can reduce the duration of a cold by about half a day.
Green tea has been linked to a lower risk of death from pneumonia in Japanese women. Drinking 2-4 cups per day lowered the risk even more.
The canola oil in the salad dressing provides plant omega-3s (alpha-linolenic acid), while the salmon provides fish omega-3s. According to a recent study, higher intakes of alpha-linolenic acid may reduce the risk of pneumonia.
The hot tea and hot soup both help soothe your throat and clear your sinuses.
Day 2: Meals for Cold and Flu Season
Breakfast: Smoothie made with frozen unsweetened strawberries, banana, a couple of tablespoons of ground flaxseed, and a yogurt product containing probiotics.