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An apple a day keeps the doctor away, right? Debunking the top 7 myths around food and immunity

Updated: Nov 2, 2023

There are over 200 winter viruses that can cause the common cold, putting a lot of pressure and strain on our bodies. Coupled with circulating respiratory viruses, the flu and the fact that we’ve spent a lot of the last year sheltering away from covid, it’s no wonder we’re feeling a little more vulnerable!

So what can we do to stop those little mites from invading our humble abod-ies this winter? In this guide, we’ll pick apart the myths surrounding food and immunity and learn what’s fact and what’s fable when it comes to boosting our wellness.

1. Vitamin C

Increase your vitamin C - the oldest trick in the book, right?! But does it actually work?

You may be surprised to learn research suggests consumption of vitamin C when you’re already unwell will not improve your sickness! Unfortunately, guzzling back litres of orange juice when you’re already unwell is unlikely to make you feel a whole heap better.

However, all is not lost! Some evidence suggests regular supplementation will reduce the length and severity of your illness, so prevention is key! Ensuring you are including a range of foods high in vitamin C may see potential bugs packing their bags and finding new homes elsewhere.

Supplementation does not need to be in the form of supplements - vitamin C rich foods are cost effective and varied so eating a balanced and varied diet can provide you with enough. Foods to make sure you’re including are:

  • Kiwifruit

  • Citrus (lemons, limes, oranges)

  • Leafy greens (spinach, silverbeet, kale)

  • Broccoli

  • Tomatoes (tinned tomatoes are most cost effective during winter months!)

2. Vitamin D

We know we’re generally more ‘well’ during the summer months when the sun is shining but is there any reason for this?

The answer is yes! Vitamin D, our sunshine vitamin, is involved in a number of important body functions, one being our immune system. During the summer, we’re flooded with vitamin D from the suns UV ray’s however, in winter, we tend to gravitate indoors for warmth and as such, reduce our exposure.

At The Wellness Studio, we recommend boosting your winter sunlight exposure, where you can, as the sun is our number one Vitamin D source. A brisk walk during your lunch break or maximising your outside time during weekends are great options. Vitamin D can also be found in oily fish so be sure to aim for salmon or mackerel once per week.

In New Zealand, our winter sunshine will be enough to keep vitamin D levels stable for most however, supplementation may be required for some populations (i.e older adults, those with darker skin pigmentation). We recommend speaking with your GP if you have any concerns.

3. Honey

You’ve likely heard your parents hail honey for soothing a sore throat and helping to ‘fight off’ winter bugs’, but is there any truth behind the tale?

Although honey won’t cure a cold, research suggests it can reduce the symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections (think colds/viruses that affect the nose, throat, voice box) such as cough frequency and severity and shorten the overall length of your sickness.

However, as honey is a concentrated form of sugar we don’t recommend going overboard when you’re feeling a bit blue. Enjoy in moderation by adding a teaspoon into your hot drinks alongside lemon juice several times per day, may be soothing.

4. Zinc

You may have heard of zinc’s perceived benefits of improving skin, hair and nails. However, zinc also has an important role within the human body and that is to support our immune system! Zinc is crucial for normal development and function of our white blood cells and natural killer cells with research showing that deficiencies reduce our ability to fight viruses and infection.

Zinc is found in a wide range of food which means we’re able to meet our requirements through a healthy and balanced diet - supplementation isn’t necessary. However, it is important to note that we don’t store zinc, so including food sources daily is key for meeting your requirements.

High levels of zinc are found in the following foods:

  • Red meat

  • Chicken

  • Some shellfish (i.e crab and oysters)

  • Legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans)*

  • Seeds*

*Plant sources of zinc aren’t as readily absorbed as animal sources however, they are still great sources for those who enjoy plant based diets.

5. Garlic

The ultimate culprit of bad breath! But are these compounds in garlic toxic enough to kill off the winter bugs?

Unfortunately, there’s not enough evidence to suggest garlic intake prevents colds or other illness. However, living up to it’s name as a ‘natural antibiotic’, research suggests garlic may help to reduce the severity and length of colds. To reap the benefits, 2.5g/day of garlic (1 clove) is required.

We suggest crushing or chopping the garlic before you cook it as this releases the most allicin (the compound responsible for reducing cold symptoms - and bad breath!).

6. Ginger

Ginger has been used for centuries in natural remedies and most commonly in chinese medicine. It’s thought to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and is therefore often recommended to use as a winter ‘superfood’.

However, surprisingly the research doesn’t support the effectiveness of ginger on cold and other winter illnesses at this time and more research is needed.

7. Probiotics

There has been increasing interest in the use of probiotics over recent years, mainly for the benefits they provide in gut health. However, its’ been questioned whether they also play a role in immunity.

When looking at the evidence the jury is still out, with some research showing probiotics may be helpful in preventing upper respiratory tract infections.

As such, we wouldn’t recommend supplementing with a probiotic tablet, however, there’s would be no harm (and in actual fact, benefit for gut health could be seen) in consuming foods that contain probiotics. These foods are often ‘fermented’ and include;

  • Some yoghurts (make sure to check the labels - acidophilus is a good choice)

  • Kefir

  • Kombucha

  • Sauerkraut

  • Miso

  • Tempeh

  • Kimchi

  • Sourdough bread


Looking to learn more?

The Wellness Studio is an online dietetic practice who specialise in lifestyle change, weight management and weight loss, women's health, gut health, low FODMAP diets, management of chronic health conditions, paediatric food allergies, and fussy eating/food intolerances.

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