9 Myths About Immune-Boosting Foods That Health Experts Want You to Stop Believing
First order of business: tackling that 10x daily Emergen-C routine.
Immunity is top of mind right now, and for good reason. People all over the world are taking every precaution they can to avoid COVID-19: social distancing, proper hand-washing, stocking up on shelf-stable ingredients, and taking safety precautions when having items delivered.
But as with any highly disturbing, dangerous health epidemic, it’s easy to fall prey to overly grandiose (albeit seemingly reassuring) health advice, or worse, snake oil-like supplements that wrongfully promise you protection. That’s why we asked six health experts to debunk the most popular myths about immune-boosting dietary habits, so we can focus our eating-for-immunity efforts on ways that are *actually* effective instead.
Myth: Doubling up on vitamin C supplements will help your immune system.
“Vitamin C is an important nutrient for optimal immune function,” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, director of research and nutrition communications for the International Food Information Council. “However, studies have shown that taking megadoses of vitamin C in the form of supplements doesn’t really do us any good when it comes to fighting off a cold or other illness.” More isn’t necessarily better in these cases, since our bodies can only absorb a few hundred milligrams of vitamin C at a time, Webster says. The recommended dietary allowance, which is the daily amount of a nutrient that meets the needs of most people, is set at 75 milligrams per day for adult females and 90 milligrams per day for adult males. “Any amount above this is excreted in the urine.”
Myth: Superfoods are a cure-all.
Eating healthy is important for keeping our immune system running at full capacity. “But there is no ‘superfood’ that will magically give it a boost,” says Webster. According to Webster, eating a variety of colorful foods, with a focus on getting more fruits and vegetables, can provide us with many of the vitamins and minerals, like A, C, and E, that play key roles in the immune system. These fruits and vegetables can come in a variety of forms: fresh, frozen, canned, or jarred.
Myth: You can get infected by a virus by touching the packaging of food from a grocery store or take-out.
“There is no evidence that touching food packaging transmits viruses, COVID-19 included,” says William Li, MD, physician, scientist, and author of Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. “However, just to be safe, you can wipe down the surface with a disinfecting wipe while wearing gloves. Make sure you properly dispose of the wipe after you’re done, and wash your hands thoroughly before touching the food.” You can find our comprehensive guide to washing produce safely here.
Myth: The only foods that boost immunity are citrus fruits.
Not true! Citrus fruits, like lemons, oranges, and grapefruits, are delicious, valuable sources for the immunity powerhouse vitamin C, yes. “These are great to reach for when you’re looking for a sweet pick-me-up, but they aren’t the only foods that can support immune system health by helping you to get sick less and also helping to shorten the duration if you do,” says Briana Rodriquez, RD at Jenny Craig. Rodriquez recommends upping your intake of some of these savory ingredients so you can add some immune-boosters to every meal:
- Red peppers: Just one half-cup contains over 150 percent of your daily value for vitamin C.
- Garlic: According to Rodriquez, the sulfuric compounds in garlic have been shown to help improve immune system function.
- Carrots: We’re often told carrots are great for eye health (they are!), but the large amount of vitamin A they contain is also a fantastic immunity booster. “Vitamin A precursors like carotenoids (beta-carotene) are important antioxidants that strengthen immune function and can help our bodies fight off infections,” says Rodriquez.
- Chicken: Chicken soup is a go-to comfort food for a reason. For one, it’s hydrating—but it also contains zinc, an important mineral for helping to manage inflammation. “Poultry (like chicken) is chock-full of it. It also contains vitamin B6, which is important to the formation of new and healthy red blood cells.” Chicken broth (bone broth) contains nutrients that help with gut health and immunity, too.
Myth: Foods and vitamins are the only way to improve immunity.
“A diet filled with plenty of important nutrients is crucial for overall health and a strong immune system, but many other lifestyle factors play a role, too,” explains Rodriquez. It’s important to eat well—but we also want to make sure we do all we can to treat our bodies with TLC. Here are her top recs:
- Get your Zzzs: Did you know sleep boosts the immune system? When we don’t get adequate rest, we don’t just feel tired on the outside, it can cause stress and inflammation in our bodies, making it harder to ward off illness. Adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep a night to boost their immune systems, but with our busy lives today, that can be unrealistic at times. Making small efforts to reach that minimum, even if that means getting into bed an hour earlier or implementing a “no screen time” rule before bed so it’s easier slipping into sleep mode can truly be helpful.
- Manage stress: It’s understandable that stress levels these days are high. So it’s important to make efforts to minimize and manage stress in whatever ways we can. Meditation, getting in some movement, setting regular video calls with friends and family, or seeking help from a mental health professional are all options. Find what works for you.
- Break a sweat: Exercise is one of the best things we can do to maintain our health and boost immunity. Not only does it help alleviate stress (hint: see above), studies have shown that people who exercise regularly are less likely to catch colds than those who don’t. Go for brisk walks if you’re able or find some at-home workouts that get your heart pumping to give your immune system a boost.
- Curtail alcohol and smoking: This may seem like an obvious health suggestion, but many don’t know that cigarettes and alcohol actually hinder immune system function. Studies have found that cigarette smoke can interact with viruses, such as the flu, causing lung damage and inflammation, worsening flu symptoms for smokers. Alcohol was also found in studies to weaken the body’s response against the flu. If cutting them out completely is unrealistic, set limits for yourself and work to gradually decrease your intake.
Myth: Echinacea, beta glucans, elderberry, reishi, and other immune-boosting supplements are good for everyone.
“While herbal medicine certainly has a lot to offer as far as immune support, they don't offer a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Lizzy Swick, RD for Suggestic. “Individuals with certain health conditions, including autoimmune disease, should work with a provider trained in herbal medicine to create a personalized plan.” Remember: just because it works for many people and the research is there doesn't always mean it’s the best approach for your own body.
Myth: Only specific nutrients, such as vitamin C and zinc, support the immune system.
An overall diet consisting primarily of real food, with variety and balance is more important than isolated nutrients. “Yes, vitamin C and zinc are important, but you can't supplement your way out of a bad diet,” says Swick. “Once the diet is in place, supplements can, well, supplement.” In addition, supplements need to be used appropriately. According to Swick, taking too much zinc for a long period of time can actually lower immunity, and high dose zinc supplements are best used at the first signs of a virus.
Myth: Enhanced waters and sports drinks are needed to help boost your immunity.
"Enhanced waters and sports drinks are often a source of artificial colors and sweeteners, things we can live without," says McKenzie Jones, RD for NutriBullet. A healthy immune system starts with establishing long-term healthy habits, including eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole foods, being active and getting enough sleep, and taking care of your mental well-being.
Myth: Fresh fruits and veggies are better than canned or frozen foods at providing immune supporting nutrients.
Canned or frozen fruits and vegetables are often collected at the peak of ripeness to lock in necessary nutrients. "They are an excellent source of healthful ingredients that can serve as an easy way to boost our fruit and vegetable intake," says Sherene Chou, RD for NutriBullet.