They've got fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and so many more immunity-boosting nutrients.
Cold and flu season brings immunity to the top of everyone’s mind—but honestly when isn’t immune health important? While many turn to dietary supplements to support their immune system (like vitamin C or zinc supplements), all of the immune-boosting nutrients we need can actually be found right in the produce section of the supermarket.
Fruits and vegetables are naturally rich in a variety of immunity-supporting nutrients that help the body fight off the bacteria and viruses that cause us to get sick. Here are some of the all-time best fruits and vegetables to eat for immunity, based on their powerful nutrients and how to eat them all year long.
Why Fruits and Vegetables Benefit Immune Health
“Eating a well-balanced diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables is an important component of supporting immunity,” says Colette Micko, RDN, registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching. This is because fruits and veggies meet many of the nutritional criteria of an immune-boosting food. “An immune-boosting food is one that is both hydrating, and rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals (chemical compounds found in plants),” Micko explains.
Key Nutrients of Immune-Boosting Produce
As the ultimate hydrator, water supports virtually every body system, including the immune system. This is because one of the many roles it plays in the body is aiding waste removal and detoxification. This helps to flush away any unwanted pathogens that may lead to illness. Plus, it helps to maintain moist, healthy protective tissues in the skin, eyes, mouth, and nose, all of which are our first line of defense against unwanted microorganisms.
One of the most influential immune modulators in the body is the gut microbiome—a community of over a trillion microorganisms living in the large intestine. In fact, the gut microbiome has been tied to the expression of a variety of chronic diseases ranging from type 2 diabetes to heart disease and even eczema—as well as acute illness like flu and cold. Fiber, especially soluble fiber, acts as a prebiotic, or food for our healthy gut bacteria in the microbiome, helping to keep the community strong and functional. All fruits and vegetables in their whole, unprocessed form will contain some amount of soluble fiber (although these are some of the highest-fiber fruits you can eat.)
There are so many vitamins that support optimal immune health with the top contenders including vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E. All of these work to support immunity through their antioxidant properties. Antioxidants not only help reduce systemic inflammation but also target oxidative compounds (hence their name) like free radicals that can make us sick.
A handful of minerals also champion the immune system including zinc, iron, and selenium. “Minerals such as zinc help to support the growth and normal functioning of our immune cells while selenium boosts white blood cell production,” says Micko. Zinc and selenium also act as antioxidants in the body.
“There are specific compounds found in fruits and vegetables called phytonutrients that help reduce the chances of viruses and bacteria multiplying in your body,” Micko says. There are over 8,000 of these bioactive nutrients, also called plant compounds, currently known to scientists—all of which are considered immunomodulators that reduce inflammation and target free radicals. Anytime you’re eating plant food, including fruits and vegetables, you’re also consuming a variety of these bioactive compounds. “These phytonutrients are what give fruits and vegetables their color and smell (different colors represent different antioxidants and phytochemicals) which is why ‘eating the rainbow’ is important for optimizing immune health,” Micko adds.
"An immune-boosting food is one that is both hydrating, and rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals."
Colette Micko, RDN
Top Fruits and Veggies for Immune Health
While all fruits and veggies will support immunity through their various water, fiber, and phytonutrient contents, some stand above the rest thanks to their unique combination of immune-boosting nutrients. Here are nine of the best fruits and vegetables for immune health you can eat all year around.
Red Bell Peppers
“Red bell peppers are a great source of vitamins C and E. Just half a cup of sliced red bell peppers provides more than 100 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin C,” says Micko. These slightly sweet peppers are also chock-full of water, fiber, and plant compounds. Red bell peppers are the perfect addition to a savory stir fry, refreshing salad, or pasta dish.
This cruciferous veggie is an immune-boosting powerhouse in its own right thanks to its soluble fiber and vitamin A, B6, and C content. And thankfully, there are so many tasty ways to use broccoli in the kitchen from soups and stews to omelets, pasta, and rice dishes.
While all citrus fruits deserve a mention in a list of immune-supporting foods, grapefruit gets a special shoutout in particular, thanks to its hefty amounts of vitamin C. One grapefruit contains well over 100 percent of your daily needs, plus soluble fiber, water, and vitamin A. Grapefruit can of course be enjoyed simply with a spoon (people typically eat about half), but it also adds a fruity, acidic bite to salads, sauces, and a variety of baked goods.
“Spinach is a rich source of antioxidants (specifically vitamins A, C, and E), as well as a good source of iron,” says Micko. These nutrients combined with the fiber and plant compounds also found in spinach make it an excellent choice for those looking to bolster their immune system.
Similarly to citrus, all berries are exceptional immune-boosting fruits, but it’s time to spotlight the often overlooked blackberry. While this dark berry is rich in water, vitamin C, and plant compounds, its fiber content really sets it apart. With a whopping eight grams per cup, blackberries support a thriving gut microbiome, and thus an equally flourishing immune system.
As an excellent source of plant compounds and vitamins C and E, avocado is certainly an immune-booster. But did you know that avocado is one of the best sources of soluble fiber available? Its prebiotic power bodes well for both our immune systems and gut health. Add this mild and creamy green fruit to salads, wraps, sandwiches, burgers, eggs, spring rolls, and so much more.
There’s a reason ginger shots have become super trendy in recent years to strengthen immunity. “Ginger root contains a variety of antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and has natural antimicrobial and antibiotic properties to help ward off infection,” Micko explains. But you really don’t need to buy ginger shots (or pull out the juicer to make them at home). Instead, cook and bake with fresh ginger to reap all its healthy benefits. This pungent root is a fantastic addition to stir fries, soups, rice dishes, proteins, and also many sweet treats from sorbet to baked goods to cocktails (and mocktails).
Kiwifruit, more commonly known as kiwi, is a great addition to your immune health regimen as it’s loaded with fiber, plant compounds, water, and vitamins C and E. This tropical fruit is perfect in smoothies, fruit salads, chia pudding, and even savory marinades.
As a potent source of phytonutrients, garlic also makes this list of immune-boosting fruits and veggies. But how you consume your garlic is actually really important to reap the full benefits. “Crushed, chewed, or finely chopped garlic releases a chemical component called allicin that increases white blood cell production, making your immune system better equipped to fight infection,” says Micko, adding that “regular consumption of garlic has been shown to reduce cold symptom duration and reduce the risk of getting sick.”
Nutrition Is Just One Piece of the Immunity Puzzle
Eating a wide variety of healthy foods, including these excellent fruits and vegetables, is a key factor for helping your body prevent and fight sickness. However, Micko reminds us that no single, magic fruit or habit works on its own. "While nutrition is an important component of optimizing immune system function, it is just one piece of the puzzle," she says. "Lifestyle factors such as adequate sleep, managing stress, regular physical activity, and minimizing alcohol also play a key role.”
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