Plus a full menu of recipes that will help bolster your immune system and combat inflammation (dessert included).

By Laura Fisher
January 13, 2021
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If there is one thing that 2020 taught us, it's the importance of maintaining a strong immune system. But really, supporting your immune system shouldn't be something you only pay attention to during a pandemic, or even just cold and flu season. We should be working on building up a strong immune system all year round through our daily habits and routines. Since many of us are eating most of our meals at home these days, it's an ideal time to get into a healthy new routine and implement changes to include immunity-supporting breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. But what exactly does it mean to eat for immunity? We tapped Brigid Titgemeier, MS, RDN, LD, IFNCP, founder of Being Brigid Functional Nutrition, for an explanation of how to build balanced, nutritious, and tasty meals to set yourself up for a healthy 2021. 

The Importance of Diet for Immunity 

Titgemeier says there are two main steps to follow to decrease risk of contracting disease right now, as well as throughout the year: Limiting exposure to infection (wear masks and stay home!) and supporting your own immune system to increase your personal resiliency and ability to fight off disease. "Your immune system is dependent on key ingredients—including optimal nutrition, movement, sleep, and stress reduction—in order for it to function at its best," she says.

While it's important to focus on all areas to properly equip your body, food is a great place to start. "Research shows that nutrition can help to up-regulate your innate and adaptive immune function, supporting your body's ability to fight off pathogens," says Titgemeier. "Nutrition also plays a large role in decreasing low-grade, chronic inflammation." 

Titgemeier emphasizes enough that there is no one size fits all when it comes to nutrition and that everyone has unique nutritional needs. However, following certain nutritional principles can help regulate the immune systems and can help decrease medical conditions caused by inflammation (which has been linked to everything from heart disease to Alzheimer's).

Basics for Building Immunity-Supporting Meals

“Choose foods with deep pigments and include at least three colors per meal,” says Titgemeier. “Phytochemicals are plant-based chemicals that are derived from different pigments of fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods that are made by nature. Phytochemicals (such as carotenoids, flavonoids, anthocyanins, and more) act as antioxidants, and have been shown to have immune-regulatory properties that can enhance your immune system’s response and ability to attack and remove foreign invaders. Every nature-derived color of the rainbow has different immune-modulating properties. This is why it’s immensely beneficial to get small amounts of a variety of colors versus a large amount of just green vegetables and fruits.”

Building a well-rounded plate can help you regulate your blood sugar levels and ensure that you have an optimal balance of proteins, healthy fats, fiber, and phytonutrients—all of which play a key role in supporting the immune system. To build a balanced plate, Titgemeier offers the following tips:

  • Fill half of your plate with colorful, non-starchy vegetables (such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, and snow peas) 
  • Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of healthy fats, like olive oil or avocado oil
  • Include 3 to 6 ounces high-quality protein, such as fresh fish or grilled chicken
  • Incorporate one serving complex carbohydrates (optional), like brown rice or farro

“Incorporating spices and herbs into cooking is one of the easiest ways to add an abundance of antioxidants to the diet," Titgemeier says. "Options with particularly high levels of antioxidants include dried cloves, mint leaves, oregano, rosemary, saffron, sage, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, garlic powder, and turmeric.” 

“Eating a diet that is high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates is associated with an altered immune response that likely occurs from an excessive production of pro-inflammatory cytokines,” Titgemeier explains. “Eating a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods is a key way to lower inflammatory processes and support immune, mental, and metabolic health.” 

“There is a close association between your gut microbiome and the development and maturation of the immune system,” says Titgemeir. We’ve written about the benefits of fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi before, and Titgemeir confirms that eating these powerful natural products is one of the best ways to support your immune system and gut microbiome. “Fermented foods contain live microorganisms, the most common sources being lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. Consuming foods that contain these microorganisms daily can balance your gut bacteria and in turn, boost your body's immune response.”

Titgemeier recommends limiting your added sugar intake to 1 tablespoon or less per day. She also says to make sure to read nutrition labels, because added sugar is lurking everywhere. “Your immune army, composed of white blood cells, destroys bacteria and viruses through a process called phagocytosis," she says. "High levels of sugar in your blood may lower white blood cells function and weaken your immune system. A diet high in added sugar can also deplete antioxidant levels and increase your production of reactive oxygen species, which can cause inflammation."

Immune-Boosting Meal Ideas

You can build your own meals using the tips above, or get some inspiration from the ideas below.

Credit: Caitlin Bensel

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Start your day with a plate chock-full of immune-boosting veggies, protein, and whole grains in this Grains and Greens Breakfast Scramble that will leave you satisfied until lunchtime. Add a scoop of sauerkraut for a perfectly balanced plate. 

Credit: Greg DuPree

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This flavorful Winter Squash Salad is packed with veggies and fiber, not to mention the perfectly sweet pomegranate seeds and mix of fresh herbs. Top it with your protein of choice for an immunity power lunch. 

Credit: Quentin Bacon

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Featuring a hefty dose of protein, leafy greens, and a burst of inflammation-fighting ginger, this Seared Tilapia with Watercress-Mango Salad is about to become your new favorite dinner option. 

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Cutting out added sugar doesn’t mean you have to completely forsake anything sweet. These Healthy Frozen Chocolate Banana Slices rely on the natural sweetness from fruit with a dark and satisfying chocolate layer for a truly delectable treat.