‘Antiviral foods’ to beef up your immunity

By John Murphy
Published May 30, 2020

Key Takeaways

Wash your hands. Practice social distancing. Wear a face mask out in public. Stay at home. These are the strict rules we’ve been following for weeks on end to protect our health during the COVID-19 pandemic. But what else can be done to improve immunity and fight viral infection? Try a diet that’s high in antioxidants. 

Studies show that higher intakes of antioxidant-rich fruits, vegetables, and other foods are associated with a lower risk of oxidative stress-related diseases like heart disease and cancer. If the immune system is weakened, neutralizing antioxidants rush to repair and defend it from further damage. This is why it’s important to eat a wide variety of nutritious foods that provide good sources of antioxidants to help your immune system stay strong. 

Spices and herbs

Pound for pound, dried and ground herbs and spices have the highest antioxidant content of any food or drink you can consume, according to a study by an international panel of researchers. For this study, the researchers analyzed more than 3,100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs, and supplements to determine the total antioxidant content of each one.

Among the hundreds of herbs and spices, which of them were found to have the highest levels of antioxidants? Clove was number one, followed by peppermint, allspice, cinnamon, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, saffron, and tarragon. 

Would you eat a spoonful of dried clove for a nutritious snack? Probably not. So, let’s look at some antioxidant-rich foods you could actually eat. 


The average antioxidant content of berries and, to a lesser extent, berry products (like jam) is relatively high. But, the berries with especially high antioxidant capacity probably aren’t found in the produce aisle in your local grocery store. These include dried amla (Indian gooseberry), bilberries (native to Northern Europe), zereshk (red sour berries from Iran) dog rose (from Norway and Spain), sea buckthorn (seaberries), and crowberries. 

Antioxidant-rich berries that you might actually find in your farmer’s market or supermarket include blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, black currants, goji berries, and strawberries. 


Other (non-berry) fruits that are high in antioxidants include prunes, Red Delicious apples, Granny Smith apples, Gala apples, sweet cherries, and plums, according to USDA researchers who performed an antioxidant analysis of 100 different foods, ranked by serving size. Mangoes, guavas, pomegranates, and dates have also been found to contain healthy doses of antioxidants. 


When you think of vegetables with antioxidants, you might think of leafy greens like spinach or kale. True, both are full of nutrients, including antioxidants. But, it was artichokes that topped the list of antioxidant-rich veggies in the USDA analysis.

Besides leafy greens and artichokes, other vegetables found to be good sources of antioxidants are Russet potatoes, red and green chili peppers, red cabbage, red beets, black and green olives, and okra. 

Nuts and seeds

Nuts and seeds aren’t just healthy snacks—many actually offer a healthy amount of antioxidants. These include walnuts, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, chestnuts, peanuts, and hazelnuts.


Beans and other legumes are little nutritional powerhouses—rich in protein, fiber, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. By serving size, beans have some of the highest antioxidant levels among all foods, according to the USDA analysis. Beans that are high in antioxidants are red beans, kidney beans, pinto beans, and black beans. (But, consuming beans these days begs the question: Does flatulence transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus? Although the science is a little behind, the answer: Probably not.) 

Coffee, tea, and other beverages

Black tea and red wine are well-known sources of antioxidants, but did you know that coffee has a lot, too? In order of antioxidant content, beverages with the highest amounts of antioxidants include espresso, coffee, red wine, pomegranate juice, green tea, grape juice, black tea, and prune juice. 


Chocolate doesn’t have the nutritional value of, say, artichokes. (Then again, chocolate doesn’t taste like artichokes. It tastes—yum!—like chocolate!) But, chocolate has at least as many antioxidants as artichoke. In fact, when compared ounce to ounce, dark chocolate (the really dark stuff: 70% to 99% cocoa) has about three times the antioxidant content as artichoke. 

The key takeaway? Eating a colorful, well-balanced diet will do your body a world of good. Keeping some of these immune-boosting foods in your dietary rotation will not only help ward off opportunistic pathogens and diseases but may also help you to live better for longer.

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