8 Essential Immunity-Boosting Foods

We’ve heard it so many times that it’s become ingrained in us: food is medicine. But what does that mean, exactly? Chef and Nutrition Coach Mareya Ibrahim became fascinated with this topic after her 14-year-old came to her with a question: "how did they deal with disease thousands of years ago, before conventional medicine and antibiotics?"

Can you guess what she found? The answer was simple: nature!

Ancient civilizations became masters of using plants and herbs as their remedies. The use of spices and herbs with antimicrobial properties was necessary to ward off the threat of food-borne pathogens and life-threatening illnesses. In fact, the pharmaceuticals we use today are often derived from those medicinal plants (things like garlic, onions, turmeric, thyme, black seed, and more).


While it’s much easier to rely on fast food or lean on others to prepare food for us, by doing this, we tend to lose our connection with our own nourishment. And to be honest, there’s never been a time when owning our health is more important. With the unprecedented pandemic and the daily stresses associated with adapting to it, our internal systems are being challenged in ways we could have never imagined. It's not just our immune system that needs support; our nervous system, endocrine system, digestive system, lymphatic system, and adrenal system need support... and it all begins with food.

Food is the fuel to not only give us the life force we need for energy and vitality, but it also helps us manage stress, rest and sleep, balance our hormones, and build up our immunity. When there’s a crisis in one of our systems, the ‘machine’ becomes at risk of breaking down.

Luckily, boosting your body’s immunity and ability to fight infection is right on your plate! Eating to thrive means getting a balance of essential amino acids (protein), good fats, and slow-burning carbohydrates for maximum efficiency and strength. Adding prebiotic (garlic, onions, fiber) and probiotic (pickles, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and black garlic) rich foods will all help with getting your gut health in check–and that’s EVERYTHING. Drinking enough clear liquids every day to flush your system of toxins is also key in balancing your gut health.

Pro tip: add lemon juice or raw apple cider vinegar to your water to help with controlling bacteria!

While there’s no silver bullet, we can take big strides in protecting our incredible bodies from succumbing to sickness with Mareya's Top 8 Immunity-Boosting Foods:


Nuts and seeds (lysine rich foods)

Lysine is a building block for protein. It’s an essential amino acid, which means your body cannot make it on its own, so you need to obtain it from food. Studies show that lysine can increase the number of new cells in a wound (think: faster healing) and it may even promote the formation of new blood vessels. Lysine may play a role in reducing anxiety, and a study found that it blocked receptors involved in stress response. Getting lysine from proteins (like meat, fish, and eggs) is a great idea, and you can also find them in plant-based options like, nuts and seeds. A fun way to incorporate more nuts into your diet? Try this Vegan Chocolate Mousse recipe, using cashews as the base!


Yogurt (probiotic-rich foods)

The role of the microbiome in our overall immunity is significant. Numerous health conditions, such as obesity, insulin resistance, fatty liver disease, and low-grade inflammation seem to be more frequently diagnosed in people with low diversity in the gut microbiota than in people with high diversity (see study here). Yogurt contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, also called “probiotic bacteria”. Plus, yogurt is a great source of protein! Just watch for ‘added sugar’ and try and stick to plain yogurt enjoyed in a more savory way. Pro Tip from Mareya: "one of my favorite condiments is yogurt sauce made with garlic, cucumber, and lemon juice. Yum!" Other probiotic-rich, fermented foods include kimchee, sauerkraut, pickled veggies, raw apple cider vinegar, tempeh, and black garlic.


Microgreens (phytonutrient-rich foods)

The most nutrient-dense foods on the planet: leafy greens. The benefits of all the fiber, phytonutrients, and cell regenerating power are immeasurable! But what’s even more amazing are microgreens, which are the pre-mature shoot of the plant that grows in just weeks. They can be up 40 times more potent in phytochemicals than their mature counterparts, according to a study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Plus, you don’t need to chop them! Just wash them with Eat Cleaner Fruit + Veggie Wash and layer them onto your salads, bowls, and smoothies. The spicier ones, like radish sprouts, add a ton of flavor with just a little bite—so it’s true, small is powerful. Also, lean into cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and other cruciferous veggies for their disease-fighting power.


Berries (antioxidant-rich foods)

Antioxidant up! Berries are not only a potent and readily-available way to deliciously load up on Vitamin C, they also have high levels of phytochemicals (nutrients that help protect cells from damage). They’re also good for your heart, can help prevent high blood pressure, and can help manage diabetes because they have a low glycemic index—which means they won’t spike your blood sugar. Consistent blood sugar is key to keeping your body in check. Feel free to feast on blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, goji berries, and açaí berries—as long as there’s no sugar added. Other antioxidant-rich foods include tomatoes, artichokes, dark chocolate (yes!), beans, and leafy greens like kale, cabbage, and spinach.


Garlic & Onions (prebiotic rich foods)

Garlic and onions aren’t only a delicious base for almost every culture’s indigenous cuisine, they're also the basis of many of our modern-day antibiotics because of their virus-fighting powers! These prebiotics are also what we need to get the probiotics to do their good work, so you can think of them as the ‘fertilizer’ for a healthy growing situation. Onions, as well as garlic, have many health benefits. Onions regulate cholesterol levels, fight against viruses and bacteria, and can both prevent and heal infections. Pro tip from Mareya: onions provide the most benefits if eaten in their raw state! Mareya also recommends fermented black garlic, as you can eat easily eat it raw and it's creamy, almost caramel-like flavor lends itself beautifully to anything you’d use regular garlic in.


Beans (zinc-rich foods)

Beans, beans, the magical fruit - yes, fruit! These power-packed legumes definitely have an important place in your fit lifestyle. Beans are an excellent source of fiber, protein, B vitamins, and zinc—which can help ward away colds and viral infections. Underrated but highly beneficial, the soybean (non-GMO) should definitely have a place in your diet, especially if you’re menopausal. A 2021 study of postmenopausal women found that when they added half a cup of soybeans to a low-fat plant-based diet had an 84% reduction in moderate to severe hot flashes, from five a day to one.

Stock up on a variety of pre-cooked, canned beans to build up a strong pantry and add them to your salads, soups, stuffed peppers (Mareya has great recipes for these), and even desserts (black bean brownies for the win).


Wild-caught salmon, mackerel and sardines (Omega 3-rich foods)

We’ve all heard about the benefits of fatty fish, but how can omega-3s improve immune-system function? Through their effects on cell membranes, including the membranes of white blood cells! Every cell in the body needs to maintain homeostasis or a constant internal environment. And a healthy cell membrane, the wall between the internal cell and the outside, is key. Without this membrane, cells lose their ability to hold water and vital nutrients, as well as the ability to communicate. In a recent study, scientists found that omega-3 fatty acids can help remodel the cell membrane in T-cells, which are a type of white blood cell and are critical to a healthy immune system.


Spicy peppers, horseradish, and wasabi (capsaicin-rich/spicy foods)

Did you know that the burn that runs through your nose and makes you want to cry is actually a good thing?! It’s nature’s super immune booster and it's caused by capsaicin (in peppers) or allyl isothiocyanate (in horseradish and wasabi). Capsaicin has been widely studied for its pain-relieving effects, cardiovascular benefits, and ability to prevent ulcers. Both chemicals effectively open and drain congested nasal passages, in addition to boosting the immune system, making them great natural cold and flu remedies.

Pro tip from Mareya: the benefits are immense, if you can take the heat! Start slowly and build your tolerance from there.

The moral of the story? If you stock your fridge and spice cabinets accordingly, you'll be on road to both better health AND better-tasting food! For more information and the recipes mentioned above, check out Chef Mareya's book Eat Like You Give a Fork: The Real Dish on Eating To Thrive and follow her on Instagram!

If you're looking for a starting place for meal planning for your fam, check out Gather, our 30-Day Family Nutrition Plan. You'll get a 30-day calendar with daily challenges to encourage healthy habits, 30 recipes you can make in 30 minutes or less, weekly shopping lists, healthy grocery shopping, and meal prep tips, follow-along cooking demonstrations, and more!

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