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Eight foods that can help you stay healthy this cold and flu season

If you’re unlucky, you’re already fighting a cold. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it through the rest of the season without catching one. More likely, though, you’ll get one, especially if you have young kids in school.

You can’t prevent cold and flu viruses from making their fall appearance, but you can bolster your immune system, making it better prepared to fend off attacking viruses. And the tools might be no farther away than your refrigerator.

While good hygiene, proper sleep and getting a flu shot can help cut your risk, a nutrient-rich diet can also make you less likely to come down with a cold or flu. Whole foods contain a package of nutrients – protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants – many of which are vital to a strong immune system.

While no single food (or supplement) is guaranteed to keep viruses away, the following eight foods, packed with immune-enhancing nutrients, can give you an edge against cold and flu bugs. Don’t wait until you’re sick to revamp your diet; add these healthy foods to your fall menu now.

Kefir

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This slightly tart cultured-milk beverage is packed with probiotics, so-called friendly bacteria that stimulate the immune system. In fact, kefir typically contains triple the probiotic content of yogurt.

Once consumed, probiotics strengthen the intestinal lining, which helps keep harmful bugs out, and increase the activity of key immune cells. Certain

probiotic strains have also been shown to prevent cold and flu symptoms in adults and children.

Pour kefir over cereal, blend it into smoothies or drink it straight up as a snack. Substitute kefir for yogurt or buttermilk in dips (keep in mind it has a thinner consistency than yogurt), dressings and baked goods.

Red bell peppers

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They’re loaded with vitamin C, a nutrient that stimulates the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies. Vitamin C also amps up the release of interferon, a protein than stops viruses from replicating.

One medium pepper delivers 152 milligrams of vitamin C (one medium orange has 70 mg). Green peppers are decent sources too at 95 mg per medium pepper.

The recommended daily vitamin C intakes are 75 mg (women) and 90 mg (men); however, many experts feel 200 mg per day is optimal for disease prevention.

Other good sources of vitamin C include cantaloupe, citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, mango, strawberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and tomato juice.

Salmon

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It’s one of the few foods that serves up vitamin D, a nutrient that triggers and arms the body’s T-cells, immune cells that kill invading bacteria and viruses, including the influenza virus. Six ounces of cooked salmon (sockeye) delivers 890 IU (international units) of vitamin D. Not bad, considering one cup of vitamin-fortified milk has 100 IU.

Salmon is also a good source of protein and vitamin B6, also needed for healthy immune function.

Even if you eat salmon regularly, adults should take a 1,000 IU vitamin D supplement daily in the fall and winter. (Osteoporosis Canada recommends vitamin D year-round.)

Brazil nuts

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Thanks to their outstanding selenium content, Brazil nuts support the immune system by increasing natural killer cells, white blood cells that destroy viruses. Adults need 55 micrograms of selenium each day, about half the amount found in one single Brazil nut (96 mcg). Impressive.

You’ll also find selenium in tuna, halibut, salmon, turkey, chicken, beef, pork, whole-wheat bread, sunflower seeds and eggs.

Garlic

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Thanks to its natural sulphur compounds, this flavourful herb increases the production and activity of many immune cells, including white blood cells, antibodies and other natural killer cells. Garlic also has antiviral and antimicrobial properties.

Use garlic in soups, pasta sauces, stir-fries, chili, roasted vegetables and salad dressings. Add roasted garlic cloves to pizza, mash them with cauliflower or potatoes and blend them into bean dips.

Pumpkin

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This squash is an exceptional source of beta-carotene, a phytochemical the body converts to vitamin A. Vitamin A, in turn, helps maintain a strong intestinal lining – a physical barrier against pathogens – and ensures immune cells work properly.

The beta-carotene in one-quarter cup of canned pure pumpkin leads to the creation of more than half a day’s worth of vitamin A (477 mcg). Adults and teenagers need 700 (females) and 900 mcg (males) each day; children require 300 to 600 mcg depending on age.

Blend pumpkin purée (homemade or store-bought) into smoothies and lattes, stir into oatmeal, add to soups and pasta sauces and fold into muffin and pancake batters. Carrots, sweet potato, cantaloupe, mango and leafy green vegetables also contain beta-carotene.

Oysters

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When it comes to zinc, a mineral critical for the development and action of immune cells, oysters can’t be beat. Six medium oysters – about three ounces – supply 33 mg, four days’ worth for women and three days’ worth for men.

Other good sources of zinc include crab, beef, baked beans, black beans, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and wheat germ.

Sunflower seeds

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Their claim to fame is vitamin E, an antioxidant that enhances the body’s production of immune cells and is thought to reverse some of the decline in immune function that happens with age. One-quarter cup of sunflower seeds supplies 80 per cent of a day’s worth of vitamin E (12 mg). (Adults need 15 mg of vitamin E daily; kids need 6 to 11 mg depending on age.)

Toss sunflower seeds in green salads, mix into tuna and chicken salad, sprinkle over hot and cold cereal, stir into yogurt and add to homemade trail mix.

Other vitamin E-rich foods include wheat-germ oil, almonds, sunflower oil, safflower oil, grape seed oil, hazelnuts and cooked spinach.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto. She is a regular contributor to CTV News Channel; lesliebeck.com.

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