OPINION: Optimising immunity

Now, more than ever, good nutrition is imperative in optimising your immune function

OPINION: Optimising immunity
Lexie Jin, Accredited Practising Dietitian, Diabetes NSW & ACT


The immune system is a complex network that defends against invaders such as viruses and bacteria. Research shows good nutrition is linked to good immune function. In the current Covid-19 climate, and as we head towards winter, now is an especially good time to be eating well to support  your immune system.

What should you eat to support your immune system?

Vitamin C, D, zinc, iron and selenium have all been identified as supporting good immune function. However, it is important to remember that these nutrients need to be part of a balanced eating pattern on a regular basis. It is not a matter of a single nutrient or food, it is about how those nutritious elements work together to support good health. 

The easiest way to incorporate immune friendly nutrients is to eat mostly from the five core food groups, following the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. The five core food groups are:

1. Vegetables and legumes/beans

2. Fruit

3. Grain (cereal) foods

4. Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds

5. Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives, mostly reduced fat

Replace your refined grains with whole grains. Whole grains such as multigrain bread contain more immune supporting vitamins and minerals than refined grains such as white bread. The additional fibres in the multigrain will also assist with blood glucose and cholesterol management.

Include a variety of different protein sources such as red meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, nuts and seeds. These foods are great sources of zinc, iron and selenium which are linked with reducing inflammation and supporting a healthy immune system.

Include a wide variety of different coloured vegetables (at least five serves) and two serves of fruit per day

They are a great source of Vitamins A, C and E. These nutrients are key players in optimal immune health.

It is important to include a wide variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables. The different pigments usually have their own unique health supportive benefits. 

They are also a good source of prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre that feeds the good bacteria in your gut. These gut bacteria are closely linked with regulating your immune response. 

Enjoy low fat dairy and or dairy-alternative products. These products are well known as a good source for calcium. Milk is also rich in zinc which helps our immune system work efficiently. Some research suggests that zinc may also help with wound healing.

While it is important to know what to include in your diet for a strong immune system, it is equally important to know what to limit:

1. Limit ultra or highly processed foods. Research suggests that foods that are high in refined sodium, saturated fat and sugar increase inflammation. Ultra-processed foods include meat pies, processed meats, pizza, chips and hamburgers.

2. Limit excessive alcohol consumption. High doses of alcohol intake can directly suppress a wide range of immune responses and the more you drink, the greater the risk to your health. Alcohol abuse is associated with an increased incidence of a number of infectious diseases.

Take home message

There is no one super food that can ‘boost’ our immune function. However, we can optimise our immune system by enjoying meals that include a wide variety of vegetables, wholegrains, proteins, fruits and dairy products and limiting the foods that suppress our immune system such as highly processed foods, soft drinks and alcohol. 

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