Nutrition & Immunity

The immune system is what protects us from infection and informs the body’s response to injury. It is very complex and many different parts of the body are involved including the skin, bone marrow, lymphatic system and mucous membranes.

Many factors affect our immune function including age, gender, genetics, stress, smoking, exercise, vaccination and infection history. When we talk about nutrition related factors we can consider diet, obesity, nutrient status, alcohol intake and gut health as having an effect our immune function.

We talk about eating certain foods to boost our immune systems. In reality, our immune systems boost themselves in response to a perceived threat – like an infection and sometimes in overreaction – like in an autoimmune condition. There is no food or supplement that acts as a switch to boost it. So, a boosted immune system is not exactly what we are after.

We want to support and optimise the normal functioning of the immune system.

When our immune system is activated, and enters action mode in response to a threat, there is an increased demand for energy (calories) and some nutrients. This is provided by the food that we eat and the stores we already have in our bodies.

Many nutrients in food are involved in the functioning of the immune system including:

NutrientFood Sources
ProteinMeat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, peas, beans, lentils, tofu and nuts. 
Vitamin ALiver, whole milk, cheese, butter and many reduced fat spreads (retinol). Carrots, dark green leafy vegetables and orange-coloured fruits, (carotenoids).
Folate   Green leafy vegetables, brown rice, peas, oranges, bananas and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin B6              Poultry, white fish, milk, eggs, whole grains, soya beans, peanuts and some vegetables.
Vitamin B12Meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, yeast extract and fortified breakfast cereals are all dietary sources.
Vitamin CFresh fruits especially citrus fruits and berries; green vegetables, peppers and tomatoes and potatoes.
Vitamin DSunlight is the main source. Food sources include oily fish, eggs, fortified cereals, meat and fat spreads.  
**10 µg per day supplementation is recommended in winter**
Vitamin EVegetable oils, nuts and seeds.
CopperShellfish, liver, kidney, nuts and wholegrain cereals.
Iron       Liver, red meat, pulses, nuts, eggs, dried fruits, poultry, fish, whole grains and dark green leafy vegetables are all sources of iron
SeleniumBrazil nuts, bread, fish, meat and eggs.
ZincMeat, milk, cheese, eggs, shellfish, wholegrain cereals, nuts and pulses.
Nutrients involved in the immune system

A healthy balanced diet including a variety of foods including those listed above is the best way to support our immune system from a dietary perspective. Irelands healthy eating guidelines and the food pyramid are helpful to guide healthy food choices. It is also important to look after gut health by including lots of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes to protect the gut flora.  

It is important to remember that diet is only one of the controllable factors affecting immune function. Physical activity, sleep hygiene and stress management are the other vital factors it is important to manage in order to support a healthy immune system.

New Product Development

Covid-19 has led to many people learning more about the human immune system and trying to keep themselves healthy. Consumers are aware of the effects of the foods they eat on their health are looking to their diet for ways to support their immune systems.  

Consumers now recognise Vitamin C, Vitamin D, Selenium and Zinc in particular as having a role to play in immune function. The development of new food products containing significant levels of these nutrients will appeal to the health conscious consumer, as will food products to improve sleep quality and stress management.

If you have an idea for an innovative new food product which might support immune function, get in touch to see how we at MET might be able to support your progress.

Sources and further information:

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