Strengthen your immune system by avoiding these dietary pitfalls

By Charlie Williams
Published May 21, 2020

Key Takeaways

In these trying times, maintaining a strong immune system has never been more important. But, keeping your immune defenses in good shape can be tough, especially during quarantine—a time when physical activity can be challenging, and unhealthy habits seem to lurk behind every cabinet or refrigerator door. Protecting yourself from illness starts with sticking to the basics, like drinking enough water and eating foods that are rich in protein and vitamins. These small changes in dietary habits can make a big difference in the way you feel each day, and bring big benefits to your body’s ability to fight infection.

If you’re looking to shore up your immune system and defenses against infection, be sure to avoid these common dietary missteps.

Skipping breakfast

Intermittent fasting may be a popular trend on social media, but waiting to have your first meal until lunchtime arrives can be harmful to your immunity. In fact, one study showed that regularly skipping breakfast may not only increase the risks of hypertension and cardiometabolic disease in some people, but also contribute to frequent spikes in cortisol levels—all of which are associated with a weakened immune system. But these aren’t the only downsides: Skipping your morning meal can also compromise energy levels and slow down weight loss, making you feel worse overall.

Not eating healthy snacks between meals

While many people believe that snacking is a bad habit that they should try to break, evidence suggests that it can actually help to control blood sugar, curb appetite, and meet nutritional daily requirements—as long as you choose the right snacks. In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, investigators assessed the effects of several dietary changes on weight gain during 4-year intervals in more than 120,000 men and women who were free of chronic disease and obesity at baseline.

They found that participants who lost weight consumed more healthy snacks like yogurt, fruits, and nuts. Weight gain, on the other hand, was associated with junk foods like potato chips, sugary beverages, and red and processed meats—which can all compromise the immune system and cause chronic inflammation. So, rather than reaching for the cheese puffs or avoiding snacks altogether, evidence suggests that reaching for healthy snacks might be one of the best ways to protect your health and immunity.

Not drinking enough water

Although you may not need to drink 8 glasses of water a day to stay healthy, sufficient hydration is a key contributor to a high-functioning immune system. Drinking plenty of water helps remove toxins from the body and carry oxygen to cells to maintain healthy function. For even more benefits, add some citrus juice to water. The vitamin C and flavonoids in citrus fruits can help strengthen the immune system by promoting the production of white blood cells.

Not eating enough protein

The body needs protein to help build and repair muscle, skin, and other body tissue, as well as fight off opportunistic infections. Evidence has shown that a low-protein diet compromises host immunity. For example, in one preclinical study, researchers who assessed different levels of protein intake in two groups of hamsters found that one-third of hamsters that were fed a low-protein diet were infected with Leishmania infantum vs only 8% of hamsters that were fed a standard diet—suggesting that protein intake plays a key role in immune health. In addition to meal staples like poultry and fish, protein can be found in chickpeas, peanuts, and chia seeds.

Not getting enough vitamins

Like protein, the immune system needs adequate levels of vitamins A, C, and E for optimal function. Not only is vitamin A crucial for vision, growth, and development—it’s also crucial for protecting the body’s largest and most vulnerable organ, the skin, from various infections and immune-damaging diseases. Key sources of this vitamin include meat, fish and dairy. But, anyone who follows a plant-based diet can load up on vitamin A by eating foods like sweet potato, pumpkin, and carrot juice.

Vitamin C is a crucial part of a healthy diet and can help protect the body against the effects of free radicals, which may contribute to heart disease, cancer, and several other conditions. Vitamin C may also help prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections. Common sources include citrus fruits or berries, potatoes, tomatoes, and broccoli.

Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant by protecting cells from free radicals, and it works well with vitamin C to fortify healthy cells for increased pathogen resistance. It also helps boost the immune system by preventing the formation of blood clots. Key sources of this vitamin include avocado, mango, seeds, nuts, and asparagus.

Drinking alcohol (especially when you’re feeling stressed)

Having a few more glasses of wine than usual during quarantine may seem harmless, but relying on alcohol to make social isolation more tolerable could increase your risk of infection. Research has shown that excessive alcohol consumption comes with more than a few adverse immune-related health effects— increasing the risks of certain diseases and contributing to compromised recovery from infection and physical trauma. Stress hinders the effectiveness of the immune system, so drinking as a method to combat stress can be even more detrimental. For those struggling with mental well-being during quarantine, the CDC suggests a variety of healthy coping mechanisms, such as meditation, exercise, and good nutrition.

Focus on what you can control

During a period of such high uncertainty, it’s important to direct your attention to the parts of life you can control. It might be easier than ever to fall into unhealthy routines, but maintaining a healthy diet is just one simple way you can improve the way you feel—which, in turn, can reduce stress and bolster your immune defenses. Keep an eye on the basics, like your water intake, the diversity of the foods you eat, and your stress levels. And continue to experiment until you find a routine that works for you. These minor choices can have a significant effect on your health when it matters most.



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