Eating for immunity – how to sort health from hype

Covid-19 has disrupted our world and also increased the focus on wellness and protecting our health, especially that of our precious family. So, it’s no surprise to hear that Google searches on what to eat for immunity have skyrocketed. Ultimately, we know that a healthy diet, regular physical activity, low stress levels and a good night’s sleep are the best immune boosting strategies. But are there specific foods that you should focus on when it comes to feeding your kids? Let’s check out the tried and true immune boosters.

Iron out any problems

As a rule of thumb, aim for three to four lean red meat meals a week for highly absorbable iron and zinc. Iron supports good immunity and zinc is crucial for the normal development of several immune fighting cells. You don’t need a man size steak to meet requirements; kid friendly portions will generally meet requirements. If you have a fussy eater or vegetarian in your family, seek advice from an Accredited Practising Dietitian before automatically popping a multivitamin supplement.

Top tip: Expose your kids to a range of foods and flavours to maximise iron intake. Try a combo of lamb and beef mince kofta (meatballs) with Middle Eastern spices, served on a platter with hummus and veggie sticks.

Eat a rainbow

Malnutrition is recognised worldwide as one of the leading causes of immunodeficiency. There is no better way to boost your child’s nutrient intake than eating a rainbow of plant-based foods, especially fruits and vegetables in season, for a good source of the A, C and E vitamins. It used to be vitamin C (citrus fruit, kiwi fruit, capsicums) as the top immunity booster, but now we recognise a range of nutrients including vitamin A (dairy foods, leafy green plus orange, yellow vegetables) and E (green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds) as well.

Top tip: Check out Cook Well, Eat Well, a great resource designed to help you create healthy meals at home during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Browse the free recipes developed by nutrition experts, using pantry staples to create wholesome nutrient-packed meals.

A little ray of sunshine

Vitamin D is the new booster on the block with research showing positive effects on white blood cell function and the role in treating autoimmune disease. Regular, indirect sun exposure remains the best way to get vitamin D. Generally, experts suggest that 10-15 minutes of exposure on most days on the hands, face and arms should be enough. Specific recommendations differ by location and season, time of day, cloud coverage and the environment. A handy resource is: How much sun is enough? Getting the balance right - vitamin D and sun protection available from You can also increase your child’s dietary sources of vitamin D with fortified milks, eggs and oily fish. Oily fish also supplies a vital dose of omega 3 fatty acids, an important anti-inflammatory nutrient. Go for sardines in pasta sauce, or salmon and tuna in kid friendly foods like sushi rolls.

Top tip: Look for mushroom varieties labelled with vitamin D, these have been pulsed with UV light to boost vitamin D. Grate into a bolognaise sauce for a quick and easy vitamin D boost.

Get your good bugs and inner harmony

The digestive system is another important part of your child’s immune defence. A healthy gut acts as a guard against pathogens and viruses entering the body, so you want to do everything in your power to boost inner gut harmony. Start with getting the right balance of dietary fibre for regularity and include prebiotic fibres that act as food for good gut bacteria. Foods that are natural sources of prebiotic fibres include:

  • Vegetables such as Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onion, leek, shallots, spring onion, asparagus, beetroot, fennel bulb, green peas, snow peas, sweetcorn and savoy cabbage

  • Legumes like chickpeas, lentils, red kidney beans, baked beans and soybeans

  • If you don’t have a specific fresh vegetable on hand, use a frozen variety. Canned vegetables can also be used but add at the end of cooking as they are already tender

  • Fruits including custard apples, nectarines, white peaches, persimmon, tamarillo, watermelon, rambutan, grapefruit, pomegranate as well as dried fruit (e.g. dates, figs)

  • Breads and cereals such as barley, rye bread, rye crackers, pasta, gnocchi, couscous, wheat bran, wheat bread, oats.

A daily dose of live active cultures or probiotic bacteria, like that found in probiotic yogurts or fermented foods (e.g. kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut) can help increase the numbers of friendly bacteria in the gut.

Top tip: Look out for yoghurts labelled “probiotic” or with “ABC” cultures or “live active cultures” or the words “lactobacillus” or “bifidobacteria” in the ingredient list.

Snack smart

Keep in mind that snacking is vital for children and teens as they have smaller stomach capacities and relatively large nutrient needs, for growth and development, when compared with adults. Healthy snacks should be offered before treat foods, so kids fill up on essential nutrients first and don’t overdo nutrient-poor foods with added sugar. Active kids can afford to have higher kilojoule snacks to help fuel fitness, but still pack in those essential nutrients when they are most hungry!

Top tip: To strike a healthy balance check out the comprehensive Australian Guide to Healthy Eating on the recommended serve sizes for kids of different ages across the five food groups.

This article has been written by the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at


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