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21 Foods to Support a Healthy Immune System

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

In the face of COVID-19, have you changed the way you eat or prepare foods for you and your family? If not, here’s some food for thought: diet and lifestyle can greatly impact your immune system’s defenses against pathogens (which, may very well, include the current strain of coronavirus). Much of the media emphasizes avoidance—distancing yourself, washing your hands and limiting essential tasks—which are obviously extremely important. However, this recommendation focuses on what to bring closer — plant-based foods that help you and your family heal. During a time of uncertainty, where so much is out of our control, it would only make sense to, at the very least, plan what we eat for the best possible (healthy) outcomes. Not only will incorporating healing foods support a healthy immune system, but you and your family may also notice increased energy, better focus, improved mood, and overall feelings of healthy abundance.

Because of their important roles in supporting immune function, researchers are studying vitamin D, zinc, and vitamin C's role in COVID-19. Since we already know that these nutrients, and others found in a plant-based diet, support a strong immune system, it's a good time to start incorporating foods that are abundant in these nutrients* into your diet. It stands to reason that the same foods that are good for overall immune function, and that are helpful against colds, cases of flu, and other viruses, may also help build a healthy defense against COVID-19.

*vitamin D is not found in many foods, except some mushrooms and fortified foods. Choosing foods fortified with vitamin D is a good idea, but most people can also use a vitamin D supplement, especially during the fall and winter seasons when we are less likely to get outside in the sun. Check with your healthcare provider to see which dose of vitamin D would be best for you.

Below are 21 foods to help you and your family stay strong, both physically and mentally during this very challenging time.

(Looking for help implementing the foods below into your diet? Visit purely planted membership program options to get plant-forward or plant-based meal plans and recipes delivered to your inbox each week!)


1. Berries: All types of berries including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, are high in phytonutrients and vitamins that can foster a healthy immune system. Blueberries also have a phytonutrient called pterostilbene, which has been shown to fight disease. Berries can easily be enjoyed as a snack all on their own, but they’re also delicious in smoothies, oatmeal, dairy-free yogurt, and salads. You can also blend blueberries in your favorite vinaigrette for an antioxidant charged salad dressing! To all the moms—most kids love berries so offer them a snack often!

2. Kiwi: Snacking on kiwi has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold. In fact, one study revealed that kiwi reduced symptoms and incidences of the common cold in children 2-5 years of age. Grandparents should enjoy some vitamin C, antioxidant and phytonutrient-rich kiwi as well as it’s been shown to decrease the duration of respiratory infections in the elderly. Include kiwi in a lunchbox or add sliced kiwi to a salad for lunch or bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.

3. Apples: An apple a day … provides a great source of soluble fiber, which may strengthen your immune system. One study showed “profound, positive changes” in immunity when comparing soluble to insoluble fiber. Apples are also high in antioxidants, which may lower the risk for infections and disease. Enjoy apples as a snack or with your favorite nut or seed butter as a healthy dessert.

4. Bananas: Slightly unripe bananas contain resistant starch, which acts as a prebiotic (food for probiotics) to help create a healthy microbiome. A healthy microbiome supports a healthy immune system. Freeze bananas for a fun summer treat, blend with berries to make “nice” cream, or create a banana nut (or seed) butter “sandwich.”

5. Citrus: Citrus fruits, in their whole form, are rich in protective antioxidants like vitamin C, which can help to support your immune system and make you less susceptible to infections. One study found that simply smelling citrus fragrances could reduce stress-induced illness. Oranges make delicious snacks, but also consider adding lemon and lime to salad dressings, sauces and a squeeze on top of steamed vegetables.


6. Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, kale, cauliflower, radish, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, arugula, and bok choy. These powerful veggies are a source of a chemical signal necessary for the immune system to function at its best. They are also rich in sulfur-containing substances called glucosinolates, which make sulforaphane — a phytochemical known for its immune-optimizing and anticancer effects. Mix leafy cruciferous vegetables in smoothies or salads or add any of the cruciferous vegetables on top of plant-based pizza. Chop up broccoli nice and small and hide it in (plant-based) mac and cheese!

7. Garlic: Garlic offers protection against many bacterial and viral infections. In order to stimulate the release of the enzyme alliinase, fresh garlic must be crushed or chopped. Alliinase then creates allicin, which contains the disease-fighting characteristics. Add a clove of fresh garlic to pasta dishes, stir-fries and salad dressings.

8. Greens: Greens such as spinach, collard greens, watercress, and romaine contain phytonutrients that support a strong immune system. Green vegetables are rich in folate, iron, calcium, and phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. Folate is important for producing antibodies that help to destroy antigens that can make you sick. Iron is important for immune cells that are fighting off infection. Blend green veggies into smoothies, mix them in pasta dishes or add them to a veggie burger sandwich.

9. Mushrooms: Even the most common variety of mushrooms like white, crimini, and Portobello, have been studied for their immune-modulating and enhancing abilities. Additionally, mushrooms may increase an important immune-balancing compound called secretory IgA. Cooked mushrooms make delicious meat substitutes with their umami flavor in warm sandwiches, noodle dishes, and on pizza.

10. Onions: Also from the same allium family as garlic, onions are full of organosulfur compounds. These compounds have known benefits for immunity and are released when alliums are crushed or chopped. Onions also contain quercetin, a compound that may have particularly powerful bacteria-fighting abilities, as well as prebiotic fiber that feeds only the beneficial bacteria in our large intestine. Saute onions and add them to soups, stir-fries, burritos, and homemade sauces or enjoy them raw in sandwiches and wraps.

11. Red peppers: Did you know that red peppers have twice as much vitamin C as citrus fruits? They also contain vitamin E and beta-carotene, which may provide an extra immune-boost. Enjoy red peppers raw with hummus dip or in a wrap, or add them to stir-fries and soups.

Plant-based proteins

12. Beans: Legumes, such as chickpeas, black beans, peas, and lentils are chock-full of fiber which aid in a healthy gut. This is important because much of your immunity begins with digestion. Many beans are also rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients that may support strong immunity. Add beans in soups, tacos or create a fun bean spread for dipping vegetables.

13. Seeds: Chia, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds are rich in disease-preventing nutrients like fiber, healthy omega-3 fats, and micronutrients like vitamin E, iron, zinc, and calcium. Zinc, a mineral known to support a strong immune system, is especially high in pumpkin seeds. Seeds are a perfect afternoon snack and can easily be added with nuts to make a homemade trail mix. They can also easily be tossed in salads, smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods.

Herbs and spices

14. Turmeric: Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric not only lends to its beautiful orange-hue, but it’s also been shown to be a potent immune-enhancing substance through its anti-viral and anti-fungal properties. For best absorption, add black pepper to meals cooked with turmeric. It’s easy to sneak this earthy spice into almost any meal. Add it to stir-fries, sauces, dressings, smoothies and try a soothing Golden Milk tea made with plant-based milk, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon!

15. Oregano: Carvacrol and thymol are essential oils in oregano that contain fungicidal and anthelmintic (ability to destroy internal parasites) properties. Oil of oregano has been shown to eradicate intestinal parasites, however, dried oregano also contains these antimicrobial compounds. New research shows that oregano powder may help stimulate healthy bacteria in the gut and boost immunity. Use it daily in salads and cooking.

16. Ginger: Ginger has been touted as a digestive and immune-enhancer backed by strong research. Ginger helps to open up the lymphatic system and prevents the build-up of toxins that may create infections. Ginger also helps to activate T-cells, which are vital to a healthy immune system and for destroying viruses. Steep fresh ginger in tea, add it to stir-fries or use it in sauces and dressings. One quarter-inch slice of fresh ginger is equal to 1 to 2 grams of powder.


17. Elderberry: Elderberries contain natural substances called flavonoids that may help reduce swelling, fight inflammation, and boost the immune system. Studies have found that elderberry may ease flu-like symptoms such as fever, headaches, fatigue, sore throat, cough, and body aches. The benefits appear to be greatest when elderberry is started within 24 to 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. While we might not find this berry readily available on our grocery store shelves, they’re easily found with vitamins and supplements as syrups or lozenges. You can even grow your own elderberry bush that’s not only functional, but might be a nice addition to your garden.

18. Green tea: Green tea may be the most powerful of all the teas due to its high phytonutrient content. It contains compounds called catechins, as well the antioxidant quercetin and the amino acid L-theanine—they all support a healthy immune system. These compounds help the body fight viruses and many forms of gastrointestinal infections. Try a creamy matcha tea in the morning (with plant-based milk) or sipping on steeped loose leaf green tea throughout the day.

More plant-powered immune boosters

19. Prebiotics: Prebiotics are like ‘food’ for probiotic strains. Prebiotics promote the growth and/or activity of certain types of healthy bacteria, helping to reduce undesirable pathogens or unhealthy organisms. Find prebiotics naturally in Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, garlic, leeks, banana, onion, barley, millet, oats, wheat flour, rye, tomato, and asparagus root. Try to include a variety of foods containing prebiotics throughout the week.

20. Probiotics: Probiotics, along with prebiotics, help to restore balance to the natural gut flora, which naturally stimulates the immune system. Probiotics are live organisms such as bacteria or yeast that are beneficial to the intesti­nal microbial balance. They work by re-colonizing the gut and inhibiting the growth of pathogenic organisms. Fermented foods that contain probiotics include miso, some plant-based yogurt and kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut. Look for “live organisms” or “probiotics” on the nutrition label.

21. Nutritional yeast: This cheesy-flavored ingredient contains beta-glucans, which are known to have powerful infection-preventing and immunity-supporting properties. One study found that people who consumed one tablespoon of nutritional yeast per day were able to reduce the recurrence of infections from the common cold by 25%. Sprinkle it on popcorn, mac and cheese, pasta, soups, and salads.

Which foods will you add to your meals this week?

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