Six everyday foods to increase immunity

Reviewed by our expert panel
Six everyday foods to increase immunity

As we head into winter, it’s a good time to boost immunity to avoid nasty colds and the flu. Nutritionist Claire Turnbull gives us the low-down on six immune-boosting foods.

Citrus fruit – including lemons, oranges and grapefruit – are rich in vitamin C which boosts your immune system. The juice of a lemon contains around 30mg vitamin C, and the peel (or zest) has another 10-20mg.


Ensuring your diet has plenty of healthy foods rich in vitamin C can help reduce the length and severity of a cold if you get one. Vitamin C helps the body to produce white blood cells as well as antibodies – both keep the immune system fighting invading viruses. Don’t, however, wait until you have a cold before you top up! Vitamin C can be helpful as a preventative measure, so you need to keep your body stocked up all winter.

Easy ways to include citrus in your diet

  • Squeeze lemon or any citrus fruit into a mug and top up with hot water. A great immune booster and delicious hot drink any time of the day.
  • Make yourself a delicious lemon and garlic hummus. Blend a can of chickpeas, juice of two lemons, one garlic clove and a splash of olive oil for a healthy grainy cracker topping or a tasty sandwich filler.
  • Lemon is fabulous on fish (another food great for our health). Aim for at least two fish meals a week and have lemons at the ready to squeeze on flavoursome goodness.

Not only are eggs a source of protein and iron, they also contain vitamin A – a fat-soluble vitamin which is important for the immune system. Liver, dairy products and oily fish are other sources of vitamin A.


Vitamin A has important antioxidant properties and helps keep the cells which fight bacteria and viruses working at their best.

Easy ways to include eggs in your diet

  • Have eggs for breakfast. Try poached eggs on toast with a few slices of smoked salmon and spinach to set
    you up for the weekend!
  • An omelette makes a delicious, quick and healthy dinner. Make with eggs, onions, mushrooms, courgettes and spinach. Serve with a salad and boiled potatoes.
  • Add boiled eggs to your lunch – bring back the egg sandwich or salad. And if you need to go outside to eat it, all the better for that dose of sunshine!

Red meat is well known as an incredible source of the mineral iron. The iron in red meat is called haem iron, which is a form that can be easily absorbed by the body. For those who include meat in their diets, two to three red meat meals a week is ideal. Remember, go for lean varieties of meat, trim any fat off, and avoid adding too much extra fat when cooking.


An adequate amount of iron is important to keep your body healthy and working at its best. Iron also helps to keep the immune system working at its best. There are limits, however. More isn’t always better as too much iron can actually suppress the immune system. So stick to iron-rich foods rather than reaching for supplements. Iron supplements should only be taken under the advice of your GP.

Easy ways to include red meat in your diet

  • Try making meatballs with lean mince, onion and garlic in a tomato-based sauce. Serve with spaghetti and heaps of green veges. Take any leftover meatballs for the next day’s lunch with salad and pita bread.
  • Revive the Sunday ‘roast’ night – roast a lean cut of beef or lamb. Extra meat will be useful for week lunches in a salad or sandwich.
  • Grill lean rump steak and leave to rest for two to three minutes. Slice on the diagonal and serve over mixed salad greens, sliced cucumber and capsicum with a garlic and Thai chilli-style dressing.

Tip: If you don’t eat meat, be sure to eat plenty of nuts, eggs, beans, lentils, green leafy vegetables and cereals with added iron.

Oats and other whole grain cereals like wheat, rye, barley and brown rice provide important B vitamins such as vitamin B6, pantothenoic acid and folic acid. These vitamins support the immune system. Including whole grains every day can help supply the body with the B vitamins it needs as well as providing a valuable source of fibre and other nutrients needed for good health.


B vitamins can not only help the body fight off bacteria and viruses, but they can also help your immune system fight back when you are unwell. B vitamins are water soluble and can’t be stored in the body. For this reason, aim to include whole grains every day.

Easy ways to include grains in your diet

  • Start your day with oats. Make porridge with trim milk and top with berries and chopped nuts.
  • Serve your stir-fries on brown rice – it has a fabulous nutty flavour and makes a great healthy change to standard long-grain white rice.
  • Try a new grain such as bulgar wheat or pearl barley. These can be used to make fantastic salads and are a great addition to soups and casseroles.

Shellfish, including oysters, mussels and scallops, are great sources of zinc. Squid, prawns and other fish including salmon also have some zinc. (Lean red meat is another fantastic source; low-fat dairy products, whole grains, beans and nuts are other sources.)


The mineral zinc has a vital role when it comes to immunity. Zinc helps ensure the white blood cells which help the body to fight infection are able to work at their best. Getting enough zinc through the diet can keep the body working at its best, but as with iron, too much can suppress the immune system – so food is the best way to get the zinc you need.

Easy ways to include seafood in your diet

  • Oysters are in season – enjoy them raw with a squeeze of lemon and some grainy bread.
  • Mussels are cheap and tasty. Steam in a large pot with wine and garlic until they open, remove from shells and toss with pasta, tomatoes, parsley and olive oil.
  • Have seafood meals twice a week. Add prawns, squid or salmon to your stir-fry instead of your usual chicken.

Nuts not only have immune-boosting power from zinc, iron and the B vitamins, but also have the added value of being sources of other vitamins and minerals which support the immune system. All nuts are good and they have different benefits: Brazil nuts are rich in selenium; almond and peanuts are good sources of vitamin E. To get the best from nuts, choose a variety.


The nutritional goodness in nuts helps support the immune system as a whole – they are a good addition to everyday eating.

Easy ways to include nuts in your diet

  • Add a tablespoon of chopped Brazil nuts, walnuts and almonds to your breakfast cereal or porridge.
  • Make nuts your snack – but remember, nuts are high in kilojoules, so if you are watching your weight, stick to a quarter of a cup or less.
  • Sprinkle chopped nuts on your salads, stir-fries or curries. Unsalted varieties are best.
First published: May 2010

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