Top Immune Foods For Athletes

16th May 2015

Top Immune Foods For Athletes

By Rebecca Gawthorne

Each year, around 1.5 million Australians will take time off work due to the common cold. With the cool winter weather upon us and the flu season peaking, it is important to look after yourself. Athletes may be exceptionally fit, but this does not protect them from catching the common cold or other sicknesses. In fact, an athlete’s immune system can actually be suppressed by intense training.

While moderate exercise can boost your immune system and keep sicknesses at bay, full-time athletes or those with intense training schedules experience extra stress on their body’s systems, including their immune system. This places athletes at a higher risk of developing infections, particularly in the hours following intense workouts. Colds and influenza have negative effects on training and performance. The aim is to keep your immune system as strong as possible and reduce the risk illness and infection.

How does a healthy diet improve resistance to sickness?

There are certain foods and nutrients that are essential for maintaining a healthy immune system. It is common knowledge that Vitamins C will aid in preventing colds and reducing the severity of a cold.

Other essential immune boosting nutrients include Vitamin E, zinc, iron, selenium, probiotics, protein and unsaturated (healthy) fats. These nutrients will supercharge your immune system and help fight off infection.

The most recent research is also suggesting that carbohydrates act as nutritional immune protectors. The studies point out that an adequate carbohydrate intake before and after prolonged or high-intensity workouts can reduce disturbance to immune system markers. The carbohydrates diminish stress hormone responses during exercise and also provide fuel for your white blood cells.

Top Immune Foods – How many do you do?

Citrus fruits

High in vitamin C, citrus fruits will help reduce the duration and severity of a cold. Citrus fruits are in season during winter, so make sure you take advantage when your body needs it! Citrus fruits include oranges, mandarins, lemons, limes and grapefruit.







Garlic & Onions

Garlic and onions contain compounds that stimulate the fighting power of two of your body’s key immune cells: macrophages and T-lymphocytes. The immune-boosting properties are due to the sulphur compounds in garlic and onion, which also block enzymes that allow organisms to invade your body’s healthy tissue.

Garlic also contains another infection fighting compound called allicin. Allicin is produced when the garlic is crushed, and will aid in preventing and fighting sicknesses. So chop, mash and press garlic into your stir-fry, soups, pastas, casseroles and meats.







Yoghurt & Probiotics

Probiotics are friendly bacteria found in fermented milk products including yoghurt and probiotic drinks. Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis are two strains of healthy bacteria which can help significantly lower your risk of fever and influenza. Ingesting this live bacteria will help improve your immune system’s response to viral infections and also aid in digestion and absorption of nutrients.

To boost your immune system, include some yoghurt with breakfast, as a snack with fruit or as a healthy dessert. When buying yoghurt, read the label to make sure it contains live cultures, specifically, acidophilus.






Red Meat, Seafood & Nuts

Red meat, seafood and nuts are high in three key minerals needed to support a strong immune system; zinc, selenium and iron.

Zinc is the ultimate winter mineral, helping prevent everything from the common cold to respiratory tract infections and pneumonia. Zinc and selenium deficiencies are associated with weak immune functioning but an excess of zinc can also suppress the immune system, so getting adequate zinc from food instead of supplements is important.

Iron is required to manufacture both immune B & T-cells. Iron also ensures oxygen is transported effectively to help cells resist disease.

Athletes should aim to have red meat three times per week and seafood at twice per week.

Oils, Avocados & Fish

Oils, avocados and oily fish contain vitamin E and healthy fats, both necessary to keep your immune system strong. Vitamin E enhances T-cell activity and assists in your body’s production of anti-bodies, while healthy fats will increase the activity of phagocytes; the white blood cells that eat up bacteria.

Many athletes have a very low percentage of body fat, which can increase the risk of illness. Including some healthy fats from oils, avocados and fish will ensure your body fat levels do not drop too low and keep your immune cells fighting strong.






Keeping your fluid levels up when sick is a must. Water is best, however herbal tea and fresh citrus fruit juice will also get liquids into your system. Ensuring adequate fluid levels is especially important for athletes to prevent dehydration during training and competition. 

A Note For The Cook

Keep in mind your cooking method. Boiling and overcooking vegetables will cause important immune boosting vitamins to leach out of the vegetables (as they are water-soluble) and be destroyed.
So instead of boiling, stir-fry, bake or steam your vegetables (using minimal water).

Take Home Message

To maintain the strongest immune system possible, you must have a nutritious diet! There is no single food that provides universal protection from illness. Pack your plate full of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, wholegrain carbohydrates and protein foods! Include orange and dark green vegies and lots of colourful fruits. Limit processed foods, alcohol, caffeine and saturated fats, all of which suppress your immune system.

Remember, your body is designed to absorb the medicinal nutrients in foods rather than supplements. While supplements maybe beneficial in certain situations, they cannot replace a healthy varied diet full of fresh wholesome foods!

Rebecca Gawthorne is an accredited practising dietician and nutritionist. For more information, email: or check out her website,

instagram: @nourish_naturally