Foods That Help Prevent Colds and Flu

Orange Juice

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Food and healthy lifestyle choices boost your immune system, and that can help your body fight colds and flu. The key is not waiting until you get sick to make these changes; you need to revamp your diet and lifestyle before the cold and flu bugs get to you.

Eating Tips to Boost Your Immune System

Nutrition expert Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, is the director of the Nutrition Education and Prevention Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She explains how your diet and lifestyle choices help you avoid the worst symptoms of a cold or influenza.

Rely on Real Foods, Not Supplements

Foods are better than dietary supplements for supporting your immune system because you get the whole nutritional package. For example, Hark points out, eating an orange is better for you than just taking vitamin C pills because the orange offers you a combination of nutrients—magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin B-6, and antioxidant-rich flavonoids.

While we know that vitamin C is necessary for a healthy immune system, studies don't show that taking massive doses of vitamin C helps to prevent colds and flu. However, we do know that eating fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C will help keep your immune system strong.

Your immune system is what defends your body from infections, and the foods you eat have a significant impact on your immune system's ability to fight off colds and flu.

The reason that fruits and vegetables do a better job of keeping your immune system ready is that they also contain vitamins A and E, as well as the flavonoids that work alongside vitamin C to keep your immune system and your whole body healthy.

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables may help keep your immune system strong. People tend to eat fewer fruits and vegetables in the winter, which is the opposite of what you should be doing. Everyone needs at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day to get adequate vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants—all things we need for a healthy immune system.

For the best prices, be sure to browse your grocery store's produce aisle for fresh fruits and vegetables that are in season. Oranges and grapefruits are usually cheaper in the winter, so cold and flu season is the perfect time to load up on citrus fruits.

Eating frozen fruits and vegetables is another economical and convenient way to improve your diet and support your immune system, says Hark. Frozen vegetable selections range from very inexpensive bags of peas, corn, and green beans to artfully combined fruits and vegetable dishes topped with delicate sauces that you simply pop in the microwave.

Add berries or sliced banana to your whole-grain cereal at breakfast, and drink a glass of orange or grapefruit juice. Pack a bunch of grapes or an apple with your sandwich for lunch, and top that sandwich with tomato slices, avocado, sprouts, and lettuce.

Start dinner with a salad or vegetable soup, or serve a big salad as a healthy meal. Keep a bowl of oranges, pluots, apples, and pears on your countertop to grab as quick snacks. You can also store cut vegetables in your refrigerator, but remember they'll lose some nutritional value.

Another way to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables is to incorporate juice into your diet. Not just any juice will do, though. Make sure you choose 100% juices, as other juice drinks contain extra sugar and empty calories.

Don't Forget Healthy Proteins and Whole Grains

Eat a balanced diet with lean meats, fish, poultry, low-fat dairy, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Protein sources such as lean meats, dairy, eggs, and legumes are especially important because they supply the amino acids that your body needs to build the components of your immune system.

Eating lean meats also helps you avoid zinc and iron deficiency, both of which can affect your immune system.

Post-Cold or Flu Nutrition

Good nutrition is still important after you catch a cold or influenza. Hark says that even when you are sick and don't have much of an appetite, you need to eat when you can.

Focus on getting three meals per day and don't forget to keep eating lots of fruits and vegetables. It is important to get enough energy from the foods you eat while you are recuperating—you may not be running around and exerting much, but your body is working hard to get better.

Hark also stresses the importance of preventing dehydration. Drink fluids throughout the day such as water and juices. (Tired of plain water? Add a splash of juice to water or seltzer for a little variety).

Additional Flu-Fighting Tips

Eating a healthy diet is just part of the picture. Hark has other tips to help you stay healthy, including:

  • Exercise. Individuals who exercise generally don't get sick as often. Exercise is important all year, even in the dark and cold of winter. Hark suggests making plans to keep active in the winter, such as walking on a treadmill, using exercise videos, jumping rope, or going to the gym. Don't forget workout gear when you travel; many hotels have gyms and pools.
  • Get your flu shot. Hark says that it doesn't matter whether you are young or old, getting a flu shot is a good way to prevent the flu. Vaccination is crucial for the elderly and people with respiratory conditions.
  • Rest. The National Sleep Foundation says most kids don't get enough sleep, and many adults don't either. When you don't get enough sleep, you are more likely to get sick. If you're having trouble getting a good night's sleep, it may help to avoid eating late at night or just have a bedtime snack.
  • Wash your hands. Your hands come in contact with germs throughout the day. The best way to get rid of them is by washing your hands thoroughly. Wash your hands before preparing meals, after handling raw meats, and before serving foods. Make sure everyone at the table has washed their hands, as well.

By Shereen Lehman, MS
Shereen Lehman, MS, is a former writer for Verywell Fit and Reuters Health. She's a healthcare journalist who writes about healthy eating and offers evidence-based advice for regular people.