You feel that telltale tingle at the back of your throat…your head hurts…and you can’t breathe. It’s official: You’re coming down with a cold.
‘Tis the season for feeling sick — and you’re not alone. Every year, adults suffer from an average of two to three colds per year and an estimated five to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu, typically between the months of October and March.
Before you reach for the latest over-the-counter remedy in your medicine cabinet, head to your kitchen. While frequent hand washing, regular exercise and the flu shot are tried-and-true methods to fend off sickness, you can also bolster your immune systems with items found right in your pantry. “The most authentic way to fight a cold or flu is to eat foods that will help you build the healthy cells you need to feel better,” says Anita Mirchandani, MS, RD, CDN and spokesperson for the New York State Dietetic Association.
Add these cold- and flu-fighting foods to your cart on your next grocery run.
7 Cold and Flu-Fighting Foods to Boost Your Immune System
Nope, it’s not the smell of garlic that scares away the bacteria and viruses that make you feel sick. According to Alissa Rumsey, RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, it’s allicin, the major active component found in garlic, that’s responsible for its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. Research studies have shown that people taking garlic supplements experienced fewer and less severe colds compared to those taking a placebo. “Garlic also helps promote healthy gut flora, which rids the body of toxins, bacteria and viruses,” says Mirchandani. While you could pop a pill, Rumsey says it’s best to eat the actual thing. “The active components are more bioavailable when you eat real garlic.”
Eat up: Try whipping up this Roasted Garlic Paleo Pesto (pictured above) next time you feel the sniffles coming on.
If you want to boost your immune system, eat some beef. “Beef is a good source of zinc, and zinc is important in the development of the white blood cells that defend your body,” says Rumsey. Research has shown that having a zinc deficiency decreases a person’s immune function and response. Plus, the extra protein you get from chowing down on beef supports the body in building antibodies and fighting off infection, according to Mirchandani.
Eat up: This Steak with Chimichurri Sauce Recipe packs 23 grams of protein per serving; add it to your dinner menu this week.
3. Sweet Potato
While sweet potatoes may not be considered a traditional cold-fighting food, they’re a great source of Vitamin A, which plays a key role in maintaining the health of your mucosal surfaces. “That includes the inside of your nose and your gastrointestinal tract as well as your skin. You might not think of your skin as part of your immune system but it keeps infections from entering your body. It’s your first line of defense,” says Rumsey. “Keeping your mucus membranes healthy is key to keeping infections at bay.”
Eat up: These Spicy Sweet Potato Fries and Avocado Dip will help you load up on good old vitamin A — while simultaneously satisfying your winter comfort food cravings.
RELATED: The Benefits of Vitamin B Complex
One of the most recent spices to be crowned a superfood, turmeric is a rich yellow powder often used in curry dishes. It’s high in antioxidants and considered a natural anti-inflammatory. “If you take it on a daily basis, it is known to relieve the body of toxins,” says Mirchandani. “It has been shown that people who consume turmeric are less susceptible to colds, coughs and congestion.”
Eat (or drink!) up: Order up a curry from your favorite Indian restaurant or mix up this Fresh Turmeric Tonic for a quick immunity boost. We’re also loving these 10 Turmeric Recipes to Boost Your Health.
5. Dark Leafy Greens
While people typically associate citrus fruit with vitamin C, dark leafy greens, like spinach, kale, Swiss chard and arugula, are also great sources of the cold-fighting vitamin. According to Rumsey, some research shows that if you consistently take in adequate amounts of Vitamin C, it can reduce the duration of a cold. Mirchandani recommends sautéing vegetables and combining them with other healthy spices and foods, such as garlic. When the greens are cooked, they shrink in size and you can consume more of the vegetables than if you were eating them raw. Remember – the darker the greens, the higher the nutrient content.
Eat up: This Fall Cleanse Kale Salad should do the trick.
6. Wild Salmon
As daylight hours decrease during the fall and winter, so do your vitamin D stores. This nutrient is critical for fending off colds and flu so it’s important to mindful of consuming foods rich in it, like wild salmon. Research has shown that those with healthy levels of vitamin D suffered from fewer respiratory tract infections compared to those who were deficient — and felt better faster after getting sick.
Eat up: Whip up this Roasted Salmon with Cucumber-Dill Yogurt, or build a meal around other good sources of D such as fortified milk, canned tuna, canned sardines and egg yolks. Here are 11 more salmon recipes, ready in 30 minutes or less!
7. Chicken Soup
Your mom was right. You should eat chicken soup when you’re sick. This age-old elixir combines many elements that help speed your recovery. The warm broth not only soothes your throat but helps you stay hydrated, too. “Hot liquid, like soup, raises the temperature in your body and airways, loosening mucus secretions,” says Rumsey. “Also, when you cook chicken, it releases the amino acid cysteine, which resembles a drug that is used to treat bronchitis.” Mirchandani says, “When you’re sick, I believe in soup. With its high concentration of protein and vegetables, it’s like you’re giving your body a super-vitamin.”
Eat up: Slow-Cooker Chicken Soup will let you rest up in bed while your meal simmers away.
While these pantry staples are a good first line of defense against colds and the flu, you also need to pay attention to your overall diet. “A healthy diet has been shown to boost immune function,” and help you get better faster, says Rumsey. “If you’re consistently eating a varied diet and a colorful palate, it will help your body fight off any infections,” say Mirchandani.
Originally published November 2014. Updated November 2017.