The British Nutrition Foundation outlines key nutrients that can help both children and parents fight infections, and explains which foods they’re in.
Having a healthy immune system is vital for both children and adults – and what we eat plays a major part in this.
Paediatric infectious diseases expert Professor Kirsty Le Doare from St George’s, University of London, explains that the nutrients we get from food and our good gut bacteria, which are affected by food, help modulate the immune system and keep its natural balance, helping to protect us from disease and infection.
“A healthy diet helps keep our immune system healthy and can help prevent or reduce the risk of immune-mediated diseases,” she says. “Malnutrition affects how the immune system works, and a poor, unhealthy diet that’s low in vitamins and minerals can have the same effect.”
To make it clearer to parents which foods can help keep children and young people’s immune systems healthy, the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) has put together a list of the essential nutrients for the job.
“All of these nutrients are essential for other functions in the body, as well as supporting the immune system,” says Sara Stanner, the BNF’s science director.
“But what’s really key isn’t the role of one or two specific nutrients but how a range of vitamins and minerals are needed to support all the different ways the immune system fights off infections. And the best way to get all of these nutrients is to have a varied and balanced diet.
“Every child is different, but it’s likely that having consistently low intakes of these nutrients, below the recommended amount, will mean their immune system may not be working at full strength, they may be more vulnerable to infections, and other aspects of their health may also be affected.”
As well as nutrients such as protein and omega-3 fats, a number of vitamins and minerals have key roles in supporting the immune system.
The BNF says they are:
Found in: Eggs, cheese, whole milk, liver. The body can also make vitamin A from beta-carotene, found in dark green leafy vegetables, orange-coloured fruits and vegetables (e.g. carrots, melon).
Did you know? Carrots are rich in beta-carotene which can be converted to vitamin A in the body – three tablespoons will provide children under 10 with all they need for the day, and a baked sweet potato can give teenagers and adults all the vitamin A (as carotene) needed daily.
Found in: Poultry, fish, fortified breakfast cereals, chickpeas, soya beans, some fruit and vegetables (e.g. bananas, avocados, green peppers), nuts and seeds.
Did you know? A banana provides around a third of the vitamin B6 needed for a 4 to 10-year-old. A snack of walnuts (20g, or six halves) provides around 10% of the daily vitamin B6 requirement for teenagers and adults.
Found in: Meat, fish, milk, cheese, eggs, fortified breakfast cereals, fortified milk alternatives.
Did you know? Two tablespoons of tuna in a sandwich can provide all the vitamin B12 a child needs for the day, and two poached eggs will provide all the daily vitamin B12 adults and teenagers need.
Found in: Citrus fruits, berries, kiwi fruit, green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage), cauliflower, peppers, tomatoes.
Did you know? Broccoli is a good vitamin C provider – five small steamed florets will provide under 11s with the vitamin C they need for the day. A stir-fry with portions of sugar snap peas and red peppers will give teens and adults their required daily vitamin C.
Found in: Wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholewheat pasta, couscous, quinoa, shellfish, pulses, dried fruit.
Did you know? Baked beans are an easy source of copper that children often enjoy, and for teens and adults pulses used in soups, stews, and curries are good copper sources.
Found in: Oily fish, eggs, some fortified breakfast cereals, some fortified dairy and dairy alternative products (check labels).
Did you know? During the UK autumn and winter the sun isn’t strong enough for the body to make vitamin D, so we should eat foods rich in the vitamin. Oily fish is a good source, so try a sardine Bolognese. Children between one and four years should be given a daily 10mcg vitamin D supplement all year, and older children should take a supplement in autumn and winter.
“Vitamin D is particularly important to keep children’s growing bones healthy, and our main source is from sunlight on our skin,” explains Stanner. “As over the past year many of us have been indoors more than usual, it’s even more important that both children and adults take vitamin D supplements, as it’s difficult to get enough from diet.”
Found in: Green vegetables (e.g. broccoli, cabbage, spinach), chickpeas, oranges, berries, cheese, wholemeal bread.
Did you know? Green veg are packed with folate, whether it’s peas, plenty of lettuce, rocket and spinach in salads, and pak choi in stir fries.
Found in: Red meat, pulses, nut butters and seed pastes like peanut butter and tahini, fortified breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread, dried fruit.
Did you know? Surveys suggest around half of teenage girls and a quarter of women may have low iron intakes, so we should all try and include a variety of food sources of iron in our diets, advises Stanner. Vitamin C can help the body absorb iron, so try a glass of orange juice with fortified breakfast cereal.
Found in: Nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts, cashews, and sunflower seeds. For children under five years, nuts and seeds should be offered ground or as a nut butter/seed paste to reduce the risk of choking), eggs, poultry, fish, shellfish.
Did you know? Fish is a great selenium provider – teenagers and adults should be eating at least two portions of fish a week, one of which should be oily (e.g. salmon, sardines).
Found in: Meat, poultry, cheese, nuts and seeds (offered ground or as a nut butter/seed paste to the under fives), some shellfish (like crab and mussels), wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholegrain and seeded breads.
Did you know? Lean beef mince is a good source of zinc, so favourites like chilli, meatballs and cottage pie will all boost zinc intake. Wholegrains are also a source of zinc so try wholegrain cereal or a cheese sandwich on wholegrain bread with plenty of salad.