The top 16 foods to boost your immunity — and a dietitian's No. 1 pick to start eating today

Cold and flu season may be behind us, but it's still possible to catch a virus in the warmer months. What's more, a new variant of COVID is taking over and may lead to a summer surge. The good news is there are easy steps you can take to boost your immunity naturally, including these immunity-boosting foods, which are easy to add to your diet.

How to eat to boost the immune system

Your immune system is like an army with very sophisticated weapons in the form of cells and other compounds. For this army to function optimally, it needs a steady stream of supplies, which you get through your diet.

The best diet for your immune system is a minimally-processed, mostly plant-based diet — one that’s about 75% plant foods. That's because fruits and vegetables contain many of the various nutrients your immune system needs, such as:

  • Vitamin C

  • Beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A

  • Certain B vitamins, like folate

  • Polyphenols, antioxidants that get broken down into food and boost your gut environment, where about 80% of immune cells live

Zinc is another helpful nutrient to boost the immune system, largely found in cereals, meat, fish and other seafood, eggs and dairy products.

When choosing fruits and veggies, seek out a variety of options. Go for fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and veggies of all colors. Don’t forget that juices like 100% OJ, pomegranate juice and vegetable juice can also help you reach your fruit and veggie goals, which for most people is a minimum of 2 cups of fruit and 2 and half cups of veggies each day.

Keep in mind that you’re also better off getting the nutrients you need from your plate rather than a pill bottle, though select supplements may be useful in some cases, such as to ensure you get the necessary amount of vitamin D, a nutrient that’s only found in a limited number of foods.

Which food has the highest impact on immunity?

The No. 1 immune-boosting food is red bell peppers, according to TODAY nutrition editor Natalie Rizzo, registered dietitian.

Many people think vitamin C is the only nutrient that matters for immune health, but research shows that many nutrients play a role, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, B vitamins, zinc and probiotics. Eating a well-balanced diet with a variety of foods is the best way to cover your bases with all of these nutrients.

But one food that is extremely high in vitamin C and also has vitamin A and B vitamins is red bell peppers. A half-cup of red bell pepper has about 100 milligrams of vitamin C (111% daily value), 117 micrograms of vitamin A (13% daily value) and an array of B vitamins. Plus, they are accessible, affordable and easy to eat raw or cooked.

Which foods boost immunity fast?

The best way to boost your immunity is to eat a well-balanced and varied diet of mostly whole, plant-based foods, from fruits and veggies to beans, legumes and whole grains.

Here are the top foods to prioritize to boost your immunity.


Oranges are packed with vitamin C, an essential nutrient when you’re feeling under the weather. According to a review conducted by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, at the Australian National University, vitamin C is helpful in preventing the common cold for people exposed to sickness-inducing environments, such as cold weather, and can help lower the duration and severity of a cold.


Blueberries are filled with antioxidants that can help treat and prevent coughs and colds. According to research conducted by the University of Auckland, consuming flavonoids — a class of antioxidants found in blueberries — made adults 33 percent less likely to catch a cold than those who did not eat flavonoid-rich foods or supplements daily


Tomatoes are a great food to eat when you’re sick due to their high concentration of vitamin C. Just one medium tomato contains a little over 16 milligrams of vitamin C, which is a proven fuel to your body’s immune system.

Wild salmon

Wild salmon is filled with zinc, a nutrient that has been proven to assist with reducing common cold symptoms. If you want your family, and especially your children, to avoid illness, then you should be giving them zinc-rich foods. Research has found zinc to be effective at both reducing severity and duration of cold symptoms, as well as preventing them from starting.

Dark chocolate

Believe it or not, dark chocolate can be extremely helpful in fighting off of a cold. Dark chocolate contains a heavy concentration of theobromine, an antioxidant that has been proven to alleviate coughing.


University of California in Los Angeles researchers reported broccoli can be a great addition to your diet if you’re trying to prevent a cold. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables were proven to help boost immunity, according to the study. Researchers said that sulforaphane, a chemical in the vegetable, switches on antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells, which combat free radicals in your body and prevent you from getting sick.


Spinach is a major superfood that is great for your overall health. Not only is it packed with digestion-regulating fiber, but it also contains vitamin C.


“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” isn’t just a saying — apples actually can help prevent illnesses such as the common cold. This fruit contains phytochemical antioxidants, according to a study published in Nutrition Journal. These antioxidants help boost immunity and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Pink grapefruit

One grapefruit packs 75 milligrams of vitamin C, a full day’s worth for women. It also contains an impressive amount of beta-carotene, which is converted by the body to vitamin A. Vitamin A has many functions, but one of its most important is to act as an antioxidant that can help boost immunity. It also plays a role in keeping the mucous membranes that line the nose, sinuses and mouth healthy.

Hemp seeds

Hemp seeds may be small, but they deliver big when it comes to nutrition. Not only do they contain plant-based protein, fiber and heart-healthy fats, but they are also loaded with zinc, a mineral that plays a role in supporting the immune system. Zinc activates lymphocytes, or T-cells, which are necessary to initiate an immune response.


One study in The Journal of Nutrition found that white button mushrooms, which make up about 90% of what's consumed in the U.S., have anti-viral properties and can help protect against a variety of infections. Researchers found an increase in a type of white blood cell that fights infection in mice fed a supplement of white button mushrooms. All ‘shrooms work, so pick your favorite and use it into a variety of dishes, from omelets to soups to salads.

Greek yogurt

Greek yogurt is filled with sickness-fighting probiotics and is packed with more protein than regular yogurt. A meta-analysis published in the journal Korean Journal of Family Medicine found that probiotics can help to prevent and treat the common cold. The researchers discovered that people who ate probiotics daily had a lower risk of catching a cold than those who did not eat any probiotic-rich food.

Extra virgin olive oil

This healthy oil has been shown to also help rebuild and boost the body’s immunity. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found olive oil’s high content of polyunsaturated fatty acids act as an anti-inflammatory agent in the body, which also assisted in boosting the immune system and guarding the body of infection.

Whole-grain bread

Whole grains contain anti-inflammatory properties, which increase production of healthy bacteria, according to a study published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. About 80% of your immune system lives in your gut, so it’s important to keep your gut healthy if you want to fend off any cold-causing germs.


Eggs, especially the yolks, are packed with immunity-boosting nutrients. Eggs contain a high amount of vitamin D, vital in regulating and strengthening immunity. According to a study published in JAMA, participants who took a daily serving of vitamin D in the winter were less likely to catch a cold or any other upper respiratory tract infection in comparison to those who did not.


Garlic has built a reputation for being one of the best cold-curing foods and for good reason. A review of the food published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews showed that a group of participants in a study who ate garlic over a three-month period only had 24 cases of the common cold total, compared to the 65 cases reported by the control group.

What drinks boost your immune system?

Many liquids contain powerful ingredients to fight of colds and other infections and can help make sure you're getting your recommended daily doses of necessary vitamins and minerals.

Turmeric latte

The star ingredient, turmeric, contains an important compound called curcumin, which has both anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. Turmeric lattes can be made in a variety of ways, but all you need is turmeric, warm almond milk (or other milk alternative), a little coconut oil and black pepper. Give this all a quick blend and you have a perfectly frothy latte that will have you feeling like you’re doing your body good with every sip.

Ginger tea

When it comes to treating a common cold, ginger is one of the best foods for relief. In a review published in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers summarized that ginger’s potent anti-inflammatory properties were key in the root’s powers to combat a cold or flu. Because inflammation can affect your body’s immune response, anti-inflammatory ginger can play a key role in boosting your immunity.


When you’re feeling sick, good ol’ H2O can be one of the most helpful drinks to sip. Staying hydrated can help loosen trapped mucus. Try drinking at least the recommended eight glasses of water a day to keep yourself fully hydrated since we tend to lose more fluids when we’re sick.

Ginseng tea

Ginseng tea is popular for more reasons than its delicious taste. Namely, the tea has been used as a treatment for upper respiratory tract infections (aka the common cold). A review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that ginseng has been shown to significantly reduce the symptoms of colds and influenza. However, the researchers noted that more research needs to be conducted to fully support ginseng’s immunity-boosting claims.

Green tea

Green tea contains flavonoids, an antioxidant that boosts immunity, and has anti-inflammatory properties, according to a study published in the Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology. The study states that the antioxidant catechin, which is heavily prevalent in green tea, is known to be a powerful antibacterial and antiviral and can kill off cold-starting bacteria and the influenza virus.

Worst foods for the immune system

To keep your immune system strong, it’s also a good idea to limit these foods, which all play a role in weakening your defenses.

Added sugars

Whether from desserts, sugary drinks or sneakier sources like plant-based milks, whole grain cereals or yogurts, a high-sugar diet may tamp down your immune response.

Excessive alcohol

Too much alcohol can weaken your immune system. It has also been linked with a higher chance of respiratory infections. Stick to a drink (for women) or two (for men) a day.

Heavily processed foods

The majority of sodium in your diet comes from these foods and research suggests that excess salt might undermine your immune system’s ability to cope with an invader. Heavily processed foods are also made with refined grains, which alter your metabolic response and can ultimately leave you more susceptible to serious infections. Some major culprits include fast food meals, pizza and chips.

How to boost the immune system naturally

Hacks to boost the immune system abound online, but few of them are backed by research and will actually do something to keep viruses and other infections at bay. Staying up to date on your vaccinations against COVID, flu and other illnesses are the best way to keep your immune system strong.

In addition to eating a healthy diet, here are some other ways to boost your immune system naturally that you can trust.

Get enough sleep

Getting a good night of sleep can help your body recover from illnesses faster and keeps all aspects of your health strong. Research has shown that people who are fatigued have a higher risk of infection of all kinds.

Exercise regularly

Moving your body is good for your heart and bones, and many experts believe it can boost your immune system too. There are a few possible reasons for this, according to the National Library of Medicine: Physical activity may flush bacteria out of the lungs, exercise may cause antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly throughout the bloodstream, and the rise in body temperature from exercise may help fight off infection.

Don't use too much antibacterial soap

A proper hand washing prevents the spread of germs. Correct hand washing involves a good lather of soap for 20 seconds — or the amount of time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” — and drying with a towel. People might think antibacterial soap makes hands cleaner by killing off nasty bacteria, but it actually causes another problem: It encourages antibiotic resistant bacteria to flourish. Just use regular soap and water.

Reduce stress

Research shows stress alters how well your immune system works. Preliminary research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry examined two groups of people, caregivers of family members with cancer and individuals without that type of stress. The scientists found something goes awry in the caregivers’ white blood cells, leaving them less responsive to inflammation and raising their risk of illness.

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