Back during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic—when we were all masked, washing our hands raw, and quarantining—instances of illness involving other viruses seemed significantly lower. However, this does not seem to be the case for the early days of 2023. The new strain of omicron, XBB.1.5, is reportedly spreading quickly across the United States, and the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in China also continues to be of concern. Furthermore, most states in the U.S. have reportedly experienced a spike in other upper respiratory illnesses and viral infections, which is likely due to people being less concerned with masking and avoiding crowds this winter. With all the coughing, sniffling, and sneezing going on, you might be searching for those N95 masks you stashed away last year and easy ways to strengthen your immune system defenses. But there's more you can do besides masking and staying home to protect yourself. You can cook yourself a healthy meal made with foods rich in immune system-boosting zinc.
Some studies have shown that zinc supplementation may shorten the length of cold symptoms, while others show no effect. What we do know about zinc is that it is an essential mineral involved in many important metabolic functions, including supporting a healthy immune system, healing damaged tissue, growing cells, and building proteins.
"There's no magic pill, food, or formula that can prevent the coronavirus or any exact illness," says registered dietitian nutritionist Ilana Muhlstein, MS, RDN, the bestselling author of You Can Drop It! "But there are ways you can support and help strengthen your immune system by eating nutrient-dense foods. For example, the zinc found in chicken and chickpeas and yogurt keeps us strong and healthy and less likely to contract an illness."
What about taking zinc supplements?
"In the case of COVID-19 and zinc supplementation, there isn't enough evidence to suggest you should take a zinc supplement for it," says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Family Immunity Cookbook and member of our Medical Advisory Board."Taking too much zinc through supplementation can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, vomiting and loss of appetite. Overtime, taking in too much zinc can lead to reduced immune function, and lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels."
"Your best bet is to get your zinc from food," says Amidor.
Since your best bet is to get your daily dose of zinc without the funky side effects is to avoid the supplements and eat up, here are the best natural sources to make sure you're giving your immune system its best shot at preventing illness.
Although crab, lobster, sardines, and other fish or shellfish can be good sources of zinc, none beat out the oyster. A plate of six eastern oysters provides 33 milligrams of zinc. This is well over what the Mayo Clinic recommends in terms of daily zinc intake, which is 11 milligrams for men and 8 milligrams for women.
As tasty as raw oysters are, you may want to consider cooking them. Raw oysters were connected to a norovirus outbreak last year that caused over 100 people to fall ill.
For those who like a good steak, burger, chop or roast, beef provides a significant amount of their weekly zinc. A 100 gram serving of trimmed roast beef, for example, provides 3.7 mg of zinc as well as 27.7 grams of satiating, muscle-building protein. For comparison, a serving of the same amount of roast pork tenderloin delivers about the same amount of protein and 2.41 mg of zinc.
You can easily knock out your daily zinc goal at the breakfast table.
"Breakfast cereals are often fortified with zinc and are a major source of zinc in the U.S. diet," says Amidor.
Two large eggs contains nearly 2.5 milligrams of zinc, which means you can have one hearty, immune-boosting omelette. Interestingly enough, studies also suggest that zinc in organic eggs can be even higher than their non-organic counterparts.
If you're staying away from red meat and pork, chicken is a good option, especially if you pair your meal with whole grains, beans, or other sources of zinc. A skinless chicken breast that weighs around 86 grams contains about 0.86 milligrams of zinc. Though this is not as much as a trimmed side of roast beef, you will more than you'll get from the "chicken of the sea"; canned tuna at just 0.4 milligrams of zinc per three-ounce serving.
Beans, lentils, and other legumes contain good amounts of zinc. However, "the zinc in beans, nuts, and whole grains is not as bioavailable as some other foods like meat and shellfish, due to the phytates found in these foods," says Amidor.
Phytates are antioxidant compounds that can bind to zinc, limiting its absorption. But that's no reason to skip legumes, which are a top plant-based source of protein and rich in dietary fiber.
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