Despite what you've heard, chicken soup won't cure the common cold and a plate of oranges won't prevent you from getting sick. But an overall healthy diet, along with other good-for-you habits, can help your whole body run the way it should.
"There are no studies that show one single food will prevent a cold," says Samantha Farr, Registered Dietitian and Certified Specialist in Oncology Nutrition with Southern Hills Hospital and Medical Center. In fact, no single vitamin or mineral, even in abundance, can help stave off a virus.
The immune system, the body's defense against viruses and bacteria, is complex and strengthening it can be tough. Your best bet is to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good habits like regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress reduction, weight management and a healthy diet. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can reduce your risk of chronic conditions, like heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes.
Start with a healthy lifestyle
Adequate exercise, proper sleep and stress management can help protect your body and naturally bolster your immune system.
Everyone's sleep needs vary, but the recommended range is seven to nine hours of nightly shuteye. "It helps keep the immune system strong and fight off infection," Farr says.
In addition to keeping your immune defenses in working order, regular physical activity can also help you maintain a healthy weight, prevent diabetes, lower blood pressure and cholesterol and improve overall health. If you can't meet the weekly recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, start with a few minutes of walking per day, gradually going further.
You can, and should, combine all of these activities with a healthy diet to keep your immune system functioning well all fall and winter long. Ready to get munching? Here's how.
Pick up pumpkin
Common colds typically strike when the weather is chilly, which is also the time of year this squash is at its peak. Pumpkin, perhaps the most well-known variety of squash, is versatile; puree can be folded into oatmeal, nonfat Greek yogurt or lightened-up baked goods. The fresh stuff can be cubed, roasted and tossed into a seasonal salad.
Any way you eat it, the benefits are top notch. A half-cup serving of unsweetened pumpkin puree contains about 40 calories, but delivers more than 19,000 international units (IU) of vitamin A. This important vitamin is essential for vision and heart, lung and kidney function.
A note of caution: Too much of a good thing isn't always a good thing, and this is especially true regarding Vitamin A. It's possible to consume toxic amounts of it, which can cause headaches, dizziness and blurred vision. It's rare to get sick from eating foods rich in vitamin A, but always speak with your doctor before taking vitamin supplements.
Give cranberries a try
Cranberries are so much more than the gelatinous sauce served on Thanksgiving. These plump berries are an all-purpose fruit; they add sweetness to a savory dish or a bitter bite to sweet treats.
Cranberries have 4.6 grams of fiber per raw cup, which can help keep your digestive system running smoothly. Daily fiber intake should reach between 21 and 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 for men.
Don't let this fruit's tough, green skin scare you away; the tender flesh is packed with nutrients, not to mention it's tasty!
Avocadoes are loaded with good-for-you fat and fiber that helps the body absorb vitamins A, D, E and K, according to Farr. "Including some healthy fats in our diet can help us maintain good health," Farr adds. Effortlessly toss chunked avocado into your salad or add to the top of a veggie omelet. Avocado makes a sweet mousse when blended with dark chocolate, Greek yogurt and honey.
Try swiss chard
These long-stalked leafy greens don't always make it onto your weekly shopping list, and we get it - they can be intimidating. But they're worth a shot, Farr believes. "Add some salt to the leaves and massage the Swiss chard gently," she says. "It softens the leaves and makes them more palatable."
Chopped and massaged chard can be added to salads and premade soups (pick a low-sodium variety). They can also be sautéed and mixed with cooked quinoa, bell peppers and topped with a dressing of honey, olive oil and lemon juice.
Tracking your meals with an old fashioned food journal or smartphone app can also help you stay on target to reach your health and weight goals.