Fabulous foods to help patients fight cold and flu 

Winter often heralds the beginning of the traditional cold and flu season. While colds are not usually serious (unless they lead to complications in a patient whose immune system is already compromised), the flu can be.

In 2017, Australia experienced its highest level of flu activity since the pandemic of 2009. By December, there had been almost 235,000 laboratory-confirmed notifications of influenza in Australia for the year, representing more than 2.5 times the number compared with the previous season. 

In uncomplicated cases of the flu, patients usually improve after five to seven days, but can take up to two weeks, or longer to fully recover. However, flu can lead to serious complications, including bronchitis, viral or bacterial pneumonia, and even death in elderly and chronically ill patients. .

In 2017, hospital admissions relating to the flu were 2.3 times higher than the five-year average, with an estimated 29,000 admissions. More than 1100 people died from the flu and associated complications. Most of them were over 65 years of age.

Boosting the immune system

A healthy immune system plays an important role in warding off viruses that cause colds and flu. However, when immunity is compromised, patients are more susceptible to these viruses and are at increased risk of becoming ill. One way to improve immunity is through eating lots of nutritious foods. This is particularly important for the elderly and anyone with a compromised immune system, because colds and flu can lead to other health complications. 

Foods to focus on

Patients should be encouraged to eat a balanced diet. This will provide their bodies with the essential vitamins and minerals they need to function at their best, including helping their immune system to fight germs that cause colds and flu.

Focusing on foods of all colours (green, yellow, orange, red and purple) is the best way to ensure the immune system gets all the micronutrients it needs. In particular, the diet should include the following nutrients, to improve immunity::

  • Vitamin C — Vitamin C is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which is key to fighting infections. There is some evidence that it may help prevent cold and flu complications such as pneumonia and lung infections. Because the body doesn’t store or produce Vitamin C, it’s essential that patients obtain it through their diet each day. Found in: capsicum (all colours), broccoli, sprouts, tomatoes, blackcurrants, kiwi fruit, berries and citrus fruit (oranges, lemons, grapefruit and limes). 
  • Vitamin E — Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant which helps fight free radicals that enter the body. It’s also important for a healthy immune system. Found in: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, almonds.
  • Selenium — Research has shown that deficiencies in selenium can result in viruses mutating into more damaging forms. Only small amounts of selenium are needed for good health and are easily found through the diet. Found in: brazil nuts, meat and poultry.
  • Zinc — Zinc helps keep the immune system strong and helps with wound healing. It’s possible to have too much zinc, so patients should avoid supplementation (unless under medical supervision) and focus on finding it in the diet. Found in: fish, oysters, seafood, beef, lamb, rolled oats, baked beans and pumpkin seeds.
  • Protein — Protein is important for the production, maintenance and repair of bodily tissues. Immunoglobulins (aka antibodies) are proteins used by the immune system to neutralise bacteria and viruses. Because the body doesn’t produce protein, it’s important that patients get it through their diet. Found in: red meat, poultry, fish, eggs.
  • Healthy oils — Omega-3 fats reduce inflammation, increase airflow and help protect lungs from respiratory infections. One study also found that it might help ward off the flu. Found in: salmon, tuna, flaxseeds and walnuts. 

Other ways to prevent cold and flu 

While eating well over the colder months won’t provide full immunity from germs, making nutritious food a priority over winter can reduce the likelihood and severity of colds. Patients seeking inspiration can make use of the hundreds of free healthy winter recipes available online..
In order to avoid colds and flu this season, patients should also be encouraged to: 
  • Wash hands thoroughly — before and after eating, and especially after coughing and sneezing
  • Avoid large crowds and other sick people
  • Disinfect surfaces regularly as these can harbour viruses
  • Exercise regularly, where appropriate 
  • Get plenty of rest as this improves your immune system
  • Avoid stress, as this weakens your immune system
  • Take a good-quality vitamin and mineral supplement to fill any nutritional gaps. 


Australian Government Department of Health, 2017 Influenza Season in Australia A summary from the National Influenza Surveillance Committee, updated 22 November 2017, http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/cda-surveil-ozflu-flucurr.htm/$File/2017-season-summary-22112017.pdf /

Cleveland Clinic, 5 Foods You Should Eat This Winter, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/5-foods-for-winter-weather/

Department of Health, Australian Influenza Surveillance Report and Activity Updates, (last updated November 2017) http://www.health.gov.au/flureport

Dietitians Association of Australia, Stay well this winter with winning meals, PRESS RELEASE, 8 June 2016 https://daa.asn.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Stay-well-this-winter-with-winning-meals-FINAL.pdf

Healthdirect, Vitamin C, https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/vitamin-c

My Virtual Medical Centre, Cold and Flu Prevention, https://www.myvmc.com/lifestyles/cold-and-flu-prevention/

Nutrition Australia, Get the Edge for Winter — with Fruit & Veg, Media Release, 12 June 2005, http://www.nutritionaustralia.org/sites/default/files/winterveges_june05.pdf

Rennard BO,Ertl RF, Gossman GL, Robbins RA, Rennard SI., Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro., CHEST 2000 Volume 118, No. 4, pp 1150-57 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11035691

Web MD, The Benefits of Vitamin C, https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/the-benefits-of-vitamin-c#1

WebMD, Why You Need Zinc and How to Get It, https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-zinc-mineral