With the novel coronavirus dominating the news, a lot of misinformation has been circulating about “immune boosting” diets that can supposedly ward off infection.
Everything from loading up on vitamin C to blueberries and other foods, drinks and vitamins has been lauded on social media and elsewhere as some sort of miracle fix.
The truth is, they probably won’t do what some so-called experts claim.
“If only it were that easy to ‘boost’ your immune system through diet,” said Emma Laing, clinical associate professor and director of dietetics in the University of Georgia College of Family and Consumer Sciences. “Any food or supplement marketed to do so, such as vitamins, herbs, essential oils, juice cleanses or natural health products, is not evidence-based. What we do know is that our diets can support our immune system so that it’s able to do its job – that is, defend against disease-causing microorganisms and prevent infections.”
Laing urged consumers to be leery of marketing gimmicks and other unproven claims.
“Though some misinformation being shared might be with the best of intentions, my fear is that those feeling vulnerable and scared will be taken advantage of if they buy into claims that a product or service purports boosting immunity through diet,” she said.
Here, Laing provides some tips about what people can do to help support a healthy immune system.
How does diet interact with our immune system?
Our immune systems are sophisticated in the way that the nutrients we eat interact with organs and cells in the body. Consider this system as not a single part of the body, but one that includes white blood cells, antibodies, bone marrow, the spleen, the thymus and the lymphatic system — all working together to stay balanced. If you were somehow able to boost or force your immune system to perform above and beyond its normal functioning, you would be disrupting this balance. As an example, having an overactive immune system could lead to developing an autoimmune disorder where your body’s own tissues are attacked. This is obviously not what you’re aiming for when choosing foods that support immune health.
What dietary changes would be helpful in supporting immune health?
To support the optimal function of your immune system, focus on consuming foods that support a healthy digestive tract, such as a variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Lean proteins and fat-free or low-fat dairy products are also part of an eating pattern that promotes health as set forth by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/eat-healthy/dietary-guidelines-for-americans/index.html. If you have trouble meeting these recommendations, it’s OK to take a multivitamin and mineral supplement, but be wary of single-nutrient products that come in large quantities or mega-doses. With respect to nutrition, consuming anything above target recommendations is not necessarily better for your health. Just like aiming for a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, obtaining sufficient sleep, taking steps to quit smoking and managing stress also contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system.
What are some trusted resources for diet and food safety questions?
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics shares helpful resources on their coronavirus (COVID-19) page https://www.eatright.org/coronavirus regarding food safety concerns, access to food, and supplements and claims for cures. Also visit UGA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation at https://nchfp.uga.edu/.
You should follow the advice of your primary health care provider or registered dietitian before deciding to take a supplement or making a change to your diet.