5 Immune-Boosting Foods That Aren't Fruits or Veggies

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Beef is an excellent source of zinc, which is key to a healthy immune system.
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Winter is the season for sweaters, snowflakes and, yup, the sniffles. It's no secret that cold weather brings sneezes and sickness galore, but there are some little-known nutrition powerhouses that may help you get through the season free from a cold or flu.

I know what you're thinking: You already know all about the wonders of getting more vitamin C in your diet! And that good sources include sweet red bell peppers, oranges, kiwi, broccoli and most other fruits and veggies.

But did you know that this mighty nutrient doesn't actually prevent illness? Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of the common cold but not prevent you from getting sick in the first place, according to a January 2013 review of evidence published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.

Immune-Boosting Nutrients Beyond Vitamin C

So if your immune system is looking for an extra boost this winter season, then you need a full spectrum of nutrients in your diet. In fact, a deficiency in one of the following may negatively affect your body's ability to fight off infection, according to a May 2013 paper in Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.

  • Vitamin A helps our immune cells mature so they can better ingest and kill bacteria. In fact, vitamin A deficiency may also make our bodies less able to respond to vaccines.
  • Vitamin D receptors are found on many of our immune system cells and helps our bodies produce anti-microbial proteins that enhance our innate defense mechanisms.
  • Vitamin E protects our cells from damage and helps boost our immune response to infections.
  • Zinc helps our bodies produce immune cells. Even a mild zinc deficiency may inhibit your body's ability to fight against organisms that cause diarrhea, respiratory tract infections and skin infections.

Read more: The One Vitamin Deficiency You're More Likely to Have in the Winter — and 5 Recipes to Help Avoid It

Besides minerals and vitamins, a diet rich in probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, also helps to improve your body's innate immunity by building a diverse microbiome in your gut. These good bacteria actually play a role in protecting us from infection. A November 2019 paper in BioMed Research International lays out the benefits of healthy probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria for reducing inflammation, improving the immune response and eliminating potential pathogens. Basically, having more good bacteria helps us fight more bad bacteria!

That's all well and good, but where can we find these disease-fighting, infection-warding champions in our diet? Here are five prime sources, along with a few alternatives for people with different dietary restrictions. Note that we'll talk about the nutrients in these foods in terms of percent daily value (DV), which is based on a 2,000-calorie diet for healthy adults.

1. Beef

Meatloaf is a tasty way to enjoy zinc-filled beef.

A serving of beef provides over 100 percent of your estimated need for zinc. If you're not a meat-eater, though, some good vegan and vegetarian sources of the nutrient include lentils (23% DV), oysters (76% DV) and tofu (36% DV). Zinc acts as a co-factor, or an assistant, for many chemical reactions that strengthen our immune system.

Try These Recipes

Beef is the star in this delicious Clean Eating Paleo Meatloaf. Or go meat-free and enjoy a comforting bowl of Lentil Walnut Soup to fill up on zinc.

Read more: 6 Surprising Symptoms of Vitamin Deficiencies

2. Tuna

Add veggies to your tuna and white bean salad for an extra nutrient boost.
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Those inexpensive cans of tuna you have laying around your cupboard are actually pretty good sources of vitamin D (10% DV) with a little bit of zinc (4% DV)! In fact, tuna is a great way to get an array of powerhouse nutrients to boost immune function.

Try This Recipe

Tuna becomes a real superstar when paired with white beans. Enjoy it in this delicious, easy-to-make White Bean Tuna Salad, which also packs an awesome 11 percent of your daily value from vitamin E and 22 percent DV from zinc.

3. Sunflower Seeds

Dessert can be full of immune-boosting nutrients, too!
Image Credit: Susan Marque

Sunflower seeds are a good source of zinc (13% DV) and vitamin E (66% DV) and can easily be added to oats, yogurt parfaits or salads for an extra dose of immune-boosting power. Vitamin E seems to be especially important for older adults, who can benefit from its ability to boost the body's immune response.

Try This Recipe

Check out this super-fast and healthy dessert recipe for Poached Pears with Candied Sunflower Seeds and Cinnamon.

4. Milk

Starting your day with a bowl of cereal and milk can be a good way to get the nutrients your immune system needs.
Image Credit: Abel Halasz / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages

A good old-fashioned glass of cow's milk actually packs a lot of immune-boosting power! Rich in vitamin D (32% DV), it also boasts 25 percent of your daily value from vitamin A and 16 percent DV of zinc. Apparently, milk is good for more than just bone health!

Milk alternatives, like almond or oat milk, can also be fortified with these vitamins, but check the label to be sure.

5. Yogurt

Yogurt and cashews combine to make this a powerhouse breakfast.
Image Credit: Keri Glassman

Fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha or sauerkraut all pack probiotics that help enhance immune function. However, yogurt is a convenient and common source of probiotics as well as vitamin A (7% DV) and zinc (13%).

Try This Recipe

Grab a container of yogurt for convenience, or prepare this delicious Cashew Maple Yogurt (bonus: cashews contain 14 percent of your daily value of zinc per serving!


The more probiotics, or healthy bacteria, introduced to our body the better. So don't let yogurt be your only source of probiotics. Sip on kombucha, add sauerkraut to meat dishes and drink kefir when you're on the run and can't sit down to enjoy your yogurt.

Remember that while studies suggest benefit from the two strains, lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, there are likely many additional unknown strains of beneficial bacteria. The key for maintaining a healthy microbiome is eating various sources of probiotics on a regular basis to maintain a healthy microbiome rather than worrying about meeting a specific daily value.

Read more: The Health Benefits of Kombucha — and How to Pick the Right One

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