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

An interview with Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD.

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Some experts tout specific immune-boosting foods and beverages like broccoli, red peppers, tea, sweet potatoes, and garlic. But it is more important to eat a wide variety of healthy foods from all food groups to boost your body’s immune system. There is no guarantee that eating certain foods will fend off infection, but we do know that your immune response or susceptibility to infection can be enhanced with overall good nutrition. Almost any fruit or vegetable is a good choice, especially ones rich in antioxidants --vitamins A, C, E and selenium, zinc, and beta carotene -- that help immune cells work optimally.

Lean protein is also important, because the immune molecules are made of protein.

Are there specific nutrients that play a role in bolstering immunity?

Preliminary research suggests low levels of vitamin D may be linked to an increase in seasonal colds and flu and an increased incidence of respiratory infections. Omega-3 fatty acids from foods like salmon may also play a role in promoting immunity. Most Americans fall short when it comes to getting enough of these nutrients, and would benefit from eating fatty fish twice a week and taking a supplement of vitamin D to boost immunity.

Can foods that contain healthy bacteria help prevent the flu?

Foods like yogurt contain probiotics, which add healthy bacteria to the intestinal track. A healthy gastrointestinal track can bolster your defense and help resist flu viruses. Choose yogurts with active cultures that are also fortified with vitamin D to promote a healthy gastrointestinal track and help meet your requirement for three servings a day of low-fat dairy.

Besides eating a healthy diet, what else can people do to prevent the flu?

Get adequate sleep, regular exercise, reduce your stress level, drink plenty of liquids, and eat a nutritious diet on a fairly regular schedule. Your immune system stays active, promoting a steady supply of immune cells, when you eat regularly and choose nutrient-rich foods. Studies have shown that moderate, regular exercise can boost the immune system, so finding at least 30 minutes a day to be active will help.

Good personal hygiene, including frequent and thorough hand-washing, covering your nose and mouth with a disposable tissue (not a reusable handkerchief), and minimal touching of your eyes, nose, and mouth will reduce the spread of germs. In fact, good hygiene may be the most important defense in fending off a virus.

How do you know if you have the flu?

Flu is a respiratory illness that can cause mild to severe symptoms. If your symptoms are severe, see your doctor. Symptoms include:

  • Fever, headache, fatigue.
  • Dry cough, sore throat, runny or stuffed nose.   
  • Muscle aches, diarrhea, and stomach symptoms (more commonly seen in children).

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