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The top foods for boosting your immune system

This cold and flu season you may have heard experts recommend ways to avoid catching diseases, like washing your hands often. But is there anything you can do to build up your body's immune system? This week on “Take Care,” WRVO's health and wellness show, hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak with author, chef and registered dietician Michelle Dudash about ways to adjust your diet to improve your natural defense system.

Lorraine Rapp: What are some of the foods that you recommend we incorporate into our diets that have been shown to boost our immune system?

Michelle Dudash: Well it’s really exciting because we actually do have control over boosting our immune systems. So, what I’ve done is pointed out the top five foods that really contain those immune boosting nutrients. So the first one is sweet potatoes. Now sweet potatoes are really high in vitamin A, and vitamin A is known as an immune booster. What it does is it helps our skin and tissue in our nose, mouth, stomach and our digestive track be healthy. That is actually really important for keeping our immune system healthy. So sweet potatoes -- they’re really high in vitamin A and also high in vitamin C. Of course, most of us have heard about vitamin C and how it helps our immune system.

Linda Lowen: Vitamin C I also associate with citrus fruits. Is that on your list?

Dudash: Absolutely! With citrus fruits -- we’re talking oranges, grapefruits, lemon juice on your food whenever you can -- vitamin C is in the citrus fruits. Citrus also contains folate and vitamin A. You’re getting this big package of all those immune boosting nutrients. The majority of Americans are getting enough vitamin C, but there are certain people at risk, like smokers for example. Smokers actually have a higher need for vitamin C. Women that are breastfeeding and women that are pregnant have higher needs as well. With vitamin C, your body doesn’t store it for a long time so you want a consistent intake of vitamin C.

Rapp: You know, there are so many foods that are healthy for one reason or another that we know about. I want to differentiate when we’re talking about boosting the immune system. Would you agree that what we’re doing is keeping in peak performance so that we can ward off things like disease or even in the short-term like colds or contagious diseases? That’s what I’m thinking the values of these foods are that you’re mentioning, in the context of the immune system.

Dudash: Definitely. That is an important point because it’s not just, ‘Eat this food because it has vitamin C.’ These foods have so many different nutrients that work in conjunction with each other. They help other things that boost immune systems too, so all of these things work together.

Lowen: The last item on your list is one that I never see in a ‘top 5’ or ‘top 10’ and I’m delighted that you veered from what everyone usually recommends. What is that item and why do you push it?

Dudash: It is beef, baby! Beef is really a nutritional powerhouse. It has the zinc, and that was big reason for me to put it on this list. Beef, aside from oysters, they are the winners when it comes to zinc, but as a food that is more accessible to most people, it’s beef. Beef has zinc, it has vitamin B6 which is important for immune health. It also has protein, copper, the list goes on. At the same time, this isn’t to say that you should eat beef every single day. Don’t be afraid of incorporating, I would say, a few times a month as a good place to start if you’re not eating beef. If you’re vegetarian -- I added this in for the vegetarians- canned baked beans or beans in general. They do have decent source of zinc as well. You really do want to make sure you’re getting some zinc foods and one easy way to do that is with beef.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.