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Expert Q&A: Can Your Diet Help You Avoid Flu?

An interview with Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

During the cooler months when we spend more time indoors, the odds of getting the flu increase. The CDC estimates that up to 20% of Americans get the flu each year. And now, the H1N1 flu pandemic has pushed those odds even higher.

Health experts recommend an annual flu shot, but Americans want to know what else they can do to prevent flu. WebMD turned to Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, to learn more about what diet and lifestyle steps we can take to bolster our immunity.

 

Why is it important to get a flu vaccine?

Your best defense against the flu is getting vaccinated, but that alone is not a 100% guarantee. It is also important to wash hands, take good care of yourself, and eat a nutritious diet. When you get a flu vaccine, your body makes antibodies that will fight the specific illness, but it takes up to 10 days for the vaccines to take effect. Each year, approximately 200,000 people are hospitalized because of complications from flu and as many as 36,000 die from flu-related causes.

Who is at greatest risk for serious flu complications?

Population groups most at risk for the flu include people who have a chronic disease or are immune-compromised, young children, the elderly, and pregnant women. All of these people, along with caregivers, should be the first to get the flu shot to minimize the risk.

Half of the people currently hospitalized for the flu are under age 25, which is reflective of the increased incidence of H1N1 flu that is more serious for younger people.

Are some people at greater risk for flu because of diet or other lifestyle habits?

Inadequate diets that are low in protein, too low in calories (less than 1,200), or contain too many processed or fast foods will lack all the nutrients necessary to maintain a healthy immune system. Sleep deprivation and stress are other conditions that can make you more vulnerable to getting the flu.

How can a nutritious diet bolster immunity and help you avoid the flu?

The healthier you are, the healthier your immune system -- your body’s "coat of armor" to protect you from all kinds of diseases. In order to prevent seasonal influenza and other germs that can make you sick, you need to make sure your immune system is healthy. The American Dietetic Association says eating healthfully is a great way to boost immunity and prevent flu. Diets that are plentiful in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, low-fat dairy, healthy fats, and more can provide a wide array of nutrients and antioxidants that can help boost the immune system.

Are there certain foods that fight flu?

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