immune boosting foods coronavirus, dietitian recommendations

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted everyone, but here’s what it’s like to work in a hospital right now—plus some expert recommendations on immune boosting foods to help protect yourself so you stay healthy, wherever you are.

“You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”

I remember early March, stuffing extra surgical masks in my pocket just in case. I remember nervously laughing with colleagues and feeling immune. I remember my dad coming into the city to my apartment from New Jersey for dinner thinking, “I’m sure it’s fine,” versus “This is my last hurrah.” I guess that’s the thing about immunity; sometimes you’re blissfully unaware you have it—or that you don’t.

I should introduce myself. I’m a dietitian at a major hospital system in New York City covering the psychiatric and neurosurgery units, and part of an eight person in-patient dietitian team. We see patients to provide tube feeding formula recommendations for individuals that are unable to tolerate food by mouth, parenteral nutrition recommendations for individuals who are unable to utilize their digestive tracts to process foods and will receive nutrition via a central line access, diabetic patients, cardiac patients, renal patients, and more. I also have my own virtual private practice, Rachel Naar Nutrition, focusing on the connection between food and mood, and I am an associate dietitian under Anastasia Health where I see clients in person for eating disorders.


Up until about three weeks ago, business was as usual. I saw around 8 to 10 patients a day, patients with seizures, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, or psycho-social issues on the psychiatric unit, and by night was helping clients suffering from anorexia, binge eating disorder, and bulimia manage their nutrition and relationship to food. Was I busy? You better believe it, but I loved the opportunity to touch so many different demographics, have longer conversations with my in-person clients, and operate at full capacity.

It started slow. A couple of patients on the units. Word that we were no longer allowed to be seeing these patients in person. In the hospital we started calling COVID-19 patients, their voices shaky, fearful, decreased appetites, clinically significant weight loss with some meeting the criteria for malnutrition. And of course, there are those we cannot speak to as they’ve been intubated; we gather the information from the chart, and while looking at their electrolytes we determine the correct tube feeding formula to keep them adequately nourished.

My private clients are suffering too. How do we distinguish anxiety from chest tightness? I’m asking the same questions. Those who want to eat have lost appetites, and others are scared of hoarding too much food and eating their snacks too quickly. A trip to the grocery stores in the time of coronavirus, it’s a new experience. Wiping down the lettuce bags until your cuticles bleed.

We know this is hard. I do, absolutely. But prioritizing nutrition is an easy way to help with sanity, and give your immune system a great leg up.

Natural Immune Boosters

Below I outline some of the key components to aid in immunity from a nutrition perspective.

  • Protein
    • What it’s good for: Aids in healing and recovery
    • Good food sources: Lean meats, fish, lentils, eggs, chickpeas, legumes, beans, tofu, Greek yogurt
  • Vitamin A
    • What it’s good for: Helps to regulate the immune system and protect against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system healthy
    • Good food sources: Sweet potatoes, carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell peppers, apricots, eggs
  • Vitamin C
    • What it’s good for: Protects you from infection by stimulating the formation of antibodies and boosting immunity
    • Good food sources: Citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, or red bell pepper, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice/ tomatoes, cherries, melons, guava, pineapple, potatoes, and kiwi
  • Vitamin E
    • What it’s good for: Works as an antioxidant, neutralizes free radicals while improving immune function
    • Good food sources: Sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils (such as sunflower or safflower oil), hazelnuts, and peanut butter
  • Zinc
    • What it’s good for: Helps the immune system work properly and assists in wound healing
    • Good food sources: Lean meat, poultry, seafood, milk, whole grain products, beans, seeds (especially sunflower), and nuts
  • Food with Both Prebiotics + Probiotic Qualities
    • What it’s good for: Foods rich in prebiotic content (fiber) help to contribute to the growth of probiotics (the good bacteria) that exist in your intestines. Probiotics are exactly that, the good bacteria that contribute as a part of your larger gut flora.
    • Good food sources: Banana, garlic, onion, artichoke (for prebiotics); Greek yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, pickles (for probiotics)
  • Vitamin B6
    • What it’s good for: An ingredient needed to produce serotonin, the main neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep; too little serotonin is associated with decreased mood/drive
    • Good food sources: Pistachios, garlic, salmon and tuna, chicken, spinach, cabbage, bananas, sweet potatoes, avocados, and whole grains
  • DHA
    • What it’s good for: The main omega-3 fat in the brain; it promotes the production of a hormone that protects neurons and promotes the birth of new brain cells
    • Good food sources: Salmon and other fresh fish, oysters, anchovies, mackerel, mussels
  • Spices/Other: Ginger, lemon, turmeric, oregano, apple cider vinegar
    • What they’re good for: May have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that lower your risk for chronic disease

In addition, remember to:

  • Sleep – Opt for 6-8 hours a night; practice a night time for electronics one hour before bed
  • De-stress – Practice deep breathing, gentle yoga; try meditation apps like Headspace, weighted blankets, and aromatherapy (particularly with lavender, eucalyptus, and mint)
  • Avoid excess alcoholAlcohol weakens the immune system and damages epithelial cells in your intestine making it hard to absorb some essential nutrients

Though the days might feel longer, or perhaps shorter for some, there is a slower pace for many that might be worth welcoming. Maybe this time is perfect for trying a new recipe, ordering take-out from a new or favorite restaurant, or simply binge-watching “Little Fires Everywhere” with a bowl of popcorn. Whatever your days may look like, finding comfort in food (however that looks in this time) is beneficial to both your physical and mental health. And cheers to that.

Another Helping

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Header image courtesy of skaman306 / Moment / Getty Images

Rachel Naar is a dietitian and owner of Rachel Naar Nutrition seeing clients virtually.
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