Every day, we come into contact with millions of germs. Thanks to our immune system, most of them don’t harm us. But what actually impacts the strength of our immune system? You may be wondering—does it help to switch to a healthy diet like veganism?
Vegans often have a stronger immune system than the average person. This is due to high amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds in plant-based foods. However, some vegans have weaker immune systems due to eating too many processed foods, not eating enough calories, or other issues.
Below, I’ll share some really cool research on which specific vegan foods can significantly reduce your chance of catching colds and other infections. I’ll also cover lifestyle factors beyond diet that affect your immune system, too!
Do Vegans Get Sick Less?
Vegans may get sick less, but there’s not great data proving this.
Vegans, like anyone else, do get sick—but eating a diet focused on nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables can certainly strengthen your immune system.
That means when infections and viruses attack, you’re more likely to be able to fight them off.
Below I’ll share a ton of research on which specific foods can strengthen your immune system. Most of them are vegan. But that doesn’t mean all vegans are eating those immune-boosting foods.
A common mistake vegans make is to assume that just because something is vegan, it’s healthy.
Sure, soy-based veggie nuggets and burgers lack some of the health dangers of meat nuggets and burgers… but they’re often highly processed, high in calories, and lack nutritional value. So it’s best to consume these foods in moderation. (source)
Instead, choose more fruit, veg, and whole grains, and you will strengthen your immune system.
Research shows that eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains filled with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants will boost your immune system.
To build a robust immune system, other healthy lifestyle decisions and prevention strategies are also important:
- Avoid large crowds
- Regularly handwash
- Keep your kitchen work surfaces clean
- Get available vaccinations
Doing these things will help you to avoid catching a virus or infection, whether or not you’re vegan. (source)
How Does Diet Impact Your Immune System?
The food we eat impacts our immune system in multiple ways.
Certain vitamins and minerals can boost our immunity. Others work as antioxidants, countering the daily and continuous oxidation process of our bodies. Others can combat harmful, chronic inflammation.
The Immune System
Particular vitamins and minerals boost the health of our immune system. So, when we eat foods packed with those nutrients, our immune system gets a boost, and as a result, we get sick less.
Many of the most nutrient-dense foods are plant-based.
Inflammation is the process through which our body protects us from infection and foreign substances (source).
You know when you have an injury, and that area of your body swells or gets red? That’s inflammation—and it’s a normal and healthy response to an injury. But chronic inflammation can also occur within our body, and it suppresses our immune system. (source)
Particular foods can combat this harmful, immune system suppressing inflammation. These foods are called anti-inflammatory foods, and many of them are plant-based. (source)
Oxidation vs Antioxidants
And research on 3,000+ foods, beverages, herbs, spices, and supplements from around the world found that plant-based foods contain 64 times the antioxidants of animal-based foods.
Since vegans eat only plant-based foods, this bodes well for vegans.
The Best Vegan Foods for a Strong Immune System
The best vegan immunity-boosting foods are found in the produce aisle. Here are a list of a bunch of the best ones to include in your diet.
Fruit, Nuts, and Seeds
- Citrus fruits are great immune boosters. Almost all are high in vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant. (source)
- Berries are some of the best sources of antioxidants around. Regularly consuming fresh and dried berries is a great idea. (source)
- Kiwi fruits pack a powerful punch, with plenty of vitamin C. One study showed that eating two servings of kiwi per day resulted in fewer colds, for fewer days, and with less severe symptoms!
- Watermelon is a great source of an antioxidant that strengthens the immune system. (source)
- Almonds contain vitamin E, a strong antioxidant, together with the fats needed for it to be properly absorbed into your body, making almonds a powerful snack choice. (source)
- Sunflower seeds also contain the antioxidant vitamin E, as well as the infection-fighting mineral selenium. (source)
- Cruciferous veggies like broccoli, kale, cauliflower, cabbage, arugula, and Brussel sprouts. These veggies activate the maintenance of our gut’s immune system (source). Our digestive tract is the largest point of interaction between our body and the outside world, it’s just a single layer of cells thick, and most of our body’s immune cells are located there—so that’s pretty important! (source)
- Garlic has long been known to boost your immunity. People regularly eating garlic have 60% fewer colds, and of those, 70% have it for less time, and their symptoms are less severe (source). But its potency drops three-fold once cooked. So, if you can’t stomach it raw, perhaps try tripling the dose in your favorite dish!
- Ginger is a good source of antioxidants, and it is anti-inflammatory. It also helps with a sore throat, nausea, and vomiting. So if you do get sick, you may still find it helpful! (source, source)
- Seaweed, particularly wakame seaweed, gives your immune system a boost and can improve the effectiveness of vaccinations. (source)
- Spinach is packed with useful nutrients and antioxidants. Its potency is best when eaten raw or lightly cooked. (source, source)
- Mushrooms provide a type of antibody within our gut that helps our immune system (source). They’re also anti-inflammatory and a good source of several vitamins that boost your immune system further.
- Red, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables share a color pigment called beta-carotene, which is a precursor of vitamin A that cleans away free radicals, boosting your immunity, as well being an antioxidant. (source)
Any tea—black, green, or white—caffeinated or decaffeinated—has a good dose of antioxidants. But green tea and white tea retain more of these antioxidants through their processing methods than black tea. (source)
Research shows that regularly consuming probiotics results in fewer colds, for fewer days, and with fewer symptoms. Fermented foods are a great source of probiotics, including miso paste, natto, kimchi, sauerkraut, and some pickles.
Nutritional yeast is a popular addition to many vegan meals for a creamy, cheesy, and savory flavor.
It contains yeast beta-glucans, which strengthen the immune system. (source)
Even a small dose of nutritional yeast can significantly strengthen your immune system—including for children against common childhood illnesses, and people with stress-induced immune suppression. (source, source)
How Much Fruit and Veg Should You Eat for a Stronger Immune System?
Well, the more the better, really… But even a little can help.
Research shows that even a single added serving of fruit or vegetables lowers our risk of an upper respiratory tract infection (e.g. the common cold).
So yes—an extra apple a day can help keep the doctor away.
Meanwhile, a study of pregnant women showed that the most protected against upper respiratory tract infections were eating nearly 9 servings of fruit and vegetables per day—compared to those eating the standard 4 or 5 servings per day.
Other research found that eating extra produce improved immune function in the elderly, including their vaccination antibody response. (source)
For the pregnant, elderly and immunocompromised, the more fruit and veg you eat every day, the better your immunity.
Other studies have found that after just two weeks without much fruit and veg, your immune system plummets. It’s good to keep this in mind if you’re prone to go on a bit of a vegan junk food binge. Regularly eating plenty of fruit and veg is vital if you want to keep your immune system strong.
The most nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant-rich foods are plant-based.
Rather than just adding some veggies on the side, us vegans get to fill our whole plates with immune-boosting, infection-fighting foods. By doing so every day, you’ll build a stronger immune system.
How Else Can We Strengthen Our Immunity?
You can also make basic healthy lifestyle choices, which work together with a healthy vegan diet, to strengthen your immune system.
- Plan out your meals to include nutrient-dense foods and to ensure you get enough calories. On average, vegans eat 600 calories less per day than omnivores. This can be great for weight loss—but if you eat too little, it can hurt your immunity. (source)
- Get enough sleep. People who get enough sleep are 3-5x more likely to beat a cold (source). This is the factor I’ve noticed the most for myself, personally. Adults should get 7+ hours of sleep per night, and longer if you’re unwell. (source, source)
- Get outside. Sunlight energizes cells in your immune system that fight infection. Plus, it’s a great source of vitamin D, which we need for a healthy immune system. (source)
- Get regular aerobic exercise. A brisk walk for 45-minutes five times per week can reduce your risk of catching a cold by one third (source). A single session of moderate exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccines for immunocompromised people (source). Exercise helps your blood move around your body more efficiently, helping your body to fight sicknesses. (source)
- Manage stress. Learning to effectively manage stress and anxiety is key to a strong immune system (source). In just two hours, a stressful event can cause your antioxidants to drop so low that it takes three days to recover. Long-term stress both encourages inflammation and negatively impacts the functioning of your immune cells. (source, source).
- Consider supplements. While you can get most of the nutrients you need with a healthy vegan diet, you may want to take some supplements as further support. For example, zinc is a key nutrient for a strong immune system (source, source). Another key that I mentioned above is vitamin D. Here’s what I take for vitamin D.