Chow Line: Fight against flu bug with healthy diet

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I’m trying to do all I can to avoid getting the flu this season. Is there anything in particular I should include in my diet that could help?

When it comes to avoiding the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the best actions you can take are to get vaccinated with the flu shot; take everyday precautions against the spread of germs, such as avoiding contact with sick people and washing your hands thoroughly and often; and, if you get the flu, see your doctor quickly (within two days of becoming ill) and ask about taking antiviral drugs to treat the illness.

A healthy, balanced diet won’t prevent you from being exposed to the flu virus, but it can help boost your immune system to help you fight off the flu virus and other illnesses. Recently, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics issued a reminder about which nutrients are most often recognized as helping build immunity:

  • Protein plays a key role in the immune system’s patrolling white blood cells (called macrophages), which attack bacteria. Most Americans get plenty of protein, but often people cut back at this time of year to lose pounds they may have gained over the holidays. Be sure your diet always includes a good variety of high-quality protein sources, including fish and seafood, lean meat and poultry, eggs, beans and peas, soy products, and nuts and seeds (preferably unsalted).
  • Vitamin A helps keep the immune system regulated and keeps skin and tissues functioning properly in the respiratory system, as well as the mouth, stomach and intestines. Good sources of vitamin A include orange vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and red bell peppers, kale, spinach, apricots, eggs and foods fortified with vitamin A, such as milk or cereal (look on the label). 
  • Vitamin C is a vital player in helping lymphocytes, another type of white blood cell, to fight against infectious microorganisms. A wide variety of fruits and vegetables are good sources of vitamin C, including citrus fruit, red bell peppers, broccoli, tomato juice and foods (such as cereals) fortified with the vitamin.
  • Vitamin E, as an antioxidant, helps protect healthy cells from being attacked by the immune system and may help improve immune function in other ways. Good sources include spinach, peanut butter, sunflower seeds or oil, safflower oil, and foods fortified with vitamin E.
  • Deficiencies in zinc can impair the immune system. Good sources of zinc include lean beef, wheat germ, crab, wheat bran, sunflower seeds, black-eyed peas, almonds, milk and tofu.

Other nutrients may also play a role. The bottom line? Strive for a healthy, balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables and lean protein to keep your immune system running smoothly.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1044, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, community nutrition education specialist for Ohio State University Extension and assistant professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

CFAES News Team
For more information, contact: 

Carolyn Gunther
OSU Extension, Community Nutrition