As many wait diligently for the COVID-19 vaccine, eating foods that are nutrient dense can help promote natural health and wellness.

There is not one magic food or supplement. The key is to include a wide variety of foods to get these nutrients in your daily meals. Despite our billion dollar spending on supplements in the U.S. nutrients from real food are always superior.

Every meal and snack is an opportunity to boost our nutrient intake. Instead of focusing on what you should not eat, change your thinking to what real foods can you eat to boost your immunity.

Here are some nutrients to focus on to build a healthy immune system:

Protein is VITAL for a healthy immune system, especially for healing and recovery. All animal foods are excellent sources – eggs, dairy products, lean meats, seafood, fish and poultry. There are many plant-based sources including dried beans and legumes, soy products (tofu, soy milk and tempura), nuts and nut butters, and seeds.

Vitamin A protects against infections by keeping your digestive and respiratory systems healthy. Good food sources of vitamin A include beef liver, eggs and many vegetables — sweet potatoes, carrots, pumpkin, spinach, sweet red bell peppers, black eye peas, broccoli and tomato juice. Fruits high in vitamin A include cantaloupe, mangos and dried apricots. Milk and many breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin A.

Vitamin C plays a role in the formation of antibodies, an important foundation for a healthy immune system. There are a variety of foods that are good sources. Fruit sources include oranges, grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries and cantaloupe. Many vegetables are high in Vitamin C including bell peppers (all colors), broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, baked potatoes, tomatoes, spinach and green peas. Remember 100 percent juices made from these fruits and tomato and V-8 juice are excellent sources.

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that may support immune function. Include vitamin E in your diet with fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, sunflower and safflower oil, hazelnuts, peanut butter and peanuts.

Zinc is well-known to help with immunity against illnesses. It is better absorbed from animal sources such as seafood (oysters, Alaska king crab, lobster), lean beef, pork and poultry. Cow’s milk, yogurt, and cheese (Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella) are other good animal sources. Plant-based sources high in zinc are pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, baked beans, chickpeas, kidney beans and fortified cereals.

Vitamin D helps with immune responses to protect you from illness. Significant sources of this vitamin in your diet include fatty fish (specifically rainbow trout, sockeye salmon, sardines and tuna fish), white mushrooms exposed to UV light, eggs, as well as vitamin-D fortified cow’s milk, non-dairy beverages (soy, almond, oat) and 100 percent fruit juices.

Other nutrients, including vitamins B6 and B12, and minerals such as copper, folate, selenium and iron may also promote a healthy immune system. For a detailed list of each nutrient visit the National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements Fact Sheets at ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/

Probiotics are “good” bacteria that support healthy digestion and a protective immune system. They can be found in cultured dairy products like yogurt and kefir and in fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha.

Aim for variety in the diet to optimize nutrition. To illustrate the point look over the foods listed in the paragraphs above which include over 50 different options.

Fruits and vegetables are key, so aim for five to seven servings daily. All types are nutritious — canned, frozen, dried and fresh. The frozen vegetable selection is bursting with more choices than ever which take less than 10 minutes to cook in the microwave. They include delicious dishes like creamed spinach, roasted Brussels sprouts and sweet potato soufflé,

Practically every vegetable is available canned. If you are concerned about added salt then pour it into a colander and rinse with water which removes 39 percent of the sodium. A quicker method is canned vegetables with no added salt.

Frozen fruits are delicious as they are packed the day they are picked. There are so many choices — blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, pineapple, even mango. I use them frequently to avoid waste since I often forget to use produce before it goes bad. Add them to your morning cereal, put in a smoothie, make a fruit salad or yogurt parfait, or use them to prepare pies and cobblers.

A healthy immune system is about balance between a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and managing the stress in your life. Aim to get seven to nine hours sleep daily for adults and eight to 14 hours for children. Simplify your expectations and routines. Try different methods for stress management including meditation, listening to music and writing in a journal.

For more information about the University of Maryland Extension Frederick County Office go to http://extension.umd.edu/frederick-county.

Deborah Rhoades, MA, RD, FAND, is a licensed registered dietitian, fellow of the Academy of Nutrition Dietetics, and extension educator in Family and Consumer Sciences.

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