Colds and flu

Updated 09 October 2017

Fight flu with these foods

It's winter and flu, colds and sore throats are back again to plague us. Luckily, there are some precautions and preventative steps that can be taken to ward off disease.

Flu viruses are tricky things: as the strains change every year, our bodies find it difficult to build up a natural immunity against them.

Take these steps and give your disease-fighting army of cells their best chance of winning the battle against the flu this winter.

General precautions

The annual flu shot is a good idea for young children, the elderly, anyone who is suffering from other illnesses or who is likely to be badly affected by flu (asthma, lung and heart patients), and people living in large communities such as army barracks, school hostels etc. Most pharmacies provide these shots and they're relatively inexpensive.

Try not to come into contact with infected friends, family and colleagues. Unfortunately, this is practically impossible because people are most infectious before the first symptoms appear. On the other hand, it's a good idea to stay at home from work or school if you have the flu, so that you don't spread the infection. This is not only considerate towards your friends and colleagues, but will also hasten your recovery.

Foods that boost immunity

Mother Nature has also given us a number of foods that can help to build immunity so that we're able to fight infections like flu. These foods include:

 - Foods rich in vitamin C - guavas, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, cabbage, broccoli and green peppers.

- Foods rich in beta-carotene - pumpkin, sweet potato, butternut, broccoli, spinach and yellow peaches (fresh and dried).

- Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids - fatty fish (tuna, pilchards, sardines) and omega-3 enriched foods.

- Foods rich in zinc - fish, seafood, especially fresh and canned oysters, meat, poultry, eggs, cheese, milk, peanut butter and unprocessed grains and cereals.

- Foods that contain certain fermentation organisms such as Lactobacilli - yoghurt and products that contain viable Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria cultures, such as Lactiflora or Acidoforte which contain Lactobacilli, Bifidoflora or Bifidoforte which contain Bifidobacteria, and Intestiflora or Intestiforte which contain a combination of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria to boost immunity in general.

Read: How vitamin C boosts your immune system

Infection fighters

Vitamin C and beta-carotene are two of the most powerful antioxidants found in food. Antioxidants stimulate immune function and help our bodies fight diseases and infections.

Omega-3 fatty acids have a similar function and yoghurt products, which contain live Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacterium cultures, boost immunity by stimulating the body to produce substances called cytokines, which are involved in fighting infections.

Zinc is an essential trace element that also stimulates the body to fight infections like flu.


Supplements that boost immunity

Generally speaking, anyone who follows a well-balanced diet doesn't need supplements. However, people in the categories mentioned above who are exposed to greater risk of contracting flu and/or having serious side effects, should consider taking a complete vitamin and mineral supplement.

Make sure that the supplement contains vitamin C, beta-carotene, and trace elements like zinc and selenium. The latter trace element also has a protective effect in terms of immune function and isn't always present in foods. Some popular breakfast cereals have recently been enriched with selenium.

Take omega-3 capsules (salmon oil or cod liver oil) and try to eat a cup of yoghurt a day. Use the low-fat variety if you are scared that eating a milk product every day will push up your fat and cholesterol intake.

Now that live cultures of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria can be purchased in capsule form at most health shops, you can take these capsules on a regular basis to boost your immunity.

Our grandmothers were not so silly after all when they made their children take a spoonful of cod liver oil every day. Nowadays we don't need to hold our noses and swallow bravely, fish oil capsules are taste- and odourless.

If you do contract flu, take extra vitamin C (fresh orange, guava or grapefruit juice) and a zinc supplement, and stay in bed and rest.

(Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc, updated April 2009)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

Read more:

Natural cures for the common cold

Could vitamin C therapy cure a cold?

5 immune boosters in your kitchen


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Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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