Eating Right to Fight the Flu

Winter in Michigan is the time for building snowmen, drinking cocoa and catching the flu. According to the CDC, the exact timing and duration of our annual winter flu season varies year to year with outbreaks happening as early as October. However, activity usually peaks in January or later. The “peak month of flu activity” is defined as the month with the highest percentage of respiratory specimens testing positive for influenza virus infection. During the past 31-years, the CDC has found that flu activity most often peaks in February.

It is well supported that an annual flu shot and frequent hand washing helps prevent the flu but maintaining a strong immune system with good nutrition may also offer protection from seasonal illness. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourages you to help protect yourself against infection and boost your immunity by including the following nutrients in your eating plan.


Protein is an essential part of the body’s defense mechanism. Antibodies, made of protein, mark invaders to alert your immune system to attack and destroy pathogens. Since you don’t need to eat specific proteins to promote immune function, consume a variety of seafood, lean meat, poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and unsalted nuts and seeds.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps protect you from infection by keeping skin and tissues in your mouth, stomach, intestines and respiratory system healthy. Due to daily contact with germs, maintaining a strong barrier is the very first line of defense! Vitamin A is naturally found in sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots, kale, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, cantaloupe, and mango.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies, thereby boosting immunity. Although vitamin C is not a cold and flu miracle cure, studies show that it may help prevent more serious complications such as pneumonia and lung infections. Get a natural boost with citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit and tangerines, or try red bell pepper, kiwi, papaya, and strawberries.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E works as an antioxidant by neutralizing harmful molecules in our cells called free radicals. Preventing this kind of damage improves the immune system as a whole.  Most people get enough Vitamin E from foods and a supplement generally isn’t necessary. Common sources include vegetable oils (such as heart healthy sunflower and safflower), spinach, eggs, nuts and nut butters, and fortified breakfast cereals.


Zinc plays a key role in cell production including those involved in immunity. Therefore, people with a zinc deficiency are more susceptible to infection, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Harvard Medical School does caution that although it’s important to have zinc in your diet (15–25 mg per day), too much zinc can actually inhibit the function of the immune system. You can reach your 15-25mg goal with sufficient intake of lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grain products, beans and nuts.

Although February may be peak flu month, remember that the best defense is a year-round offense: eat smart, stay active, get enough rest and reduce stress.

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Photo credit: A Healthier Michigan

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