By: Gabrielle Welch

One of the best ways to keep your child’s immune system strong and prevent colds and flu might surprise you: Shop your supermarket’s produce aisle.

Experts say a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you ward off infections like colds and flu. That’s because these super foods contain immune-boosting antioxidants.

What are antioxidants? They are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals. Many experts believe this damage plays a part in a number of chronic diseases, including hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), cancer, and arthritis. Free radicals can also interfere with your immune system. So fighting off damage with antioxidants helps keep your immune system strong, making you better able to ward off colds, flu, and other infections.

Antioxidants for Immunity: Where to Find Them

Offering more fruit and vegetables of any kind to your kids will improve their health. But some foods are higher in antioxidants than others. The three major antioxidant vitamins are beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. You’ll find them in colorful fruits and vegetables – especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues. To get the biggest benefits of antioxidants, eat these foods raw or lightly steamed; don’t overcook or boil.

Key strategies for immune boosting:

Offer more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and veggies are high in vitamin C and antioxidants, and both of these natural nutrients boost the immune system. Antioxidants travel through the bloodstream and protect tissue from damage. They are like the anti-rust protection in an automobile, helping reduce the wear and tear on the engine. The less wear and tear on the body, the less susceptible it is to infection. Good immune-boosting fruits include strawberries, papaya, cantaloupe, guava, pink grapefruit, and blueberries. Good veggies are tomatoes, broccoli, and sweet potatoes, as well as soy products. An immune-boosting smoothie is a great idea: one cup of plain yogurt, one-half cup each of the above-mentioned fruits, a multivitamin / multimineral formula that contains at least ten milligrams of zinc (an immune booster), and a quarter cup of flaxseed meal. Mix these immune boosters in milk or juice. Also, feed your child lots of yellow vegetables, which contain carotenoids  — a natural substance that increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells (or “natural killer cells”). Yellow-orange fruits and dark green vegetables, such as apricots, carrots, pumpkin, kale, spinach, squash and mango, are also particularly healthful.

Feed your child immune-boosting fats. Omega 3 fats, particularly those found in coldwater fish (such as wild salmon) are valuable immune boosters and maintain the overall health of just about every organ of the body. They increase the activity of macrophages, the white cells that eat up bacteria. Grandmothers knew this fact years ago in the pre-antibiotic era when they prescribed that awful tasting cod liver oil. Feed your child at least three ounces of wild salmon three times a week. If coldwater fish is not available to you, give your child a high-quality fish oil capsule. One capsule a day (open the capsule and squirt it into juice or oatmeal) should be enough. Two or three teaspoons of flax oil a day is another immune-boosting source of omega 3 fats, but not as good as a seafood source.

Feed your child less sugar and other sweeteners. Studies have shown that drinking the equivalent of two and a half 12-ounce cans of soda can reduce the ability of immune-fighting white blood cells by 40 percent.

What Not to Do!

It is equally important to know what children should not eat. Loading up on junk and food that is not fresh or that which is full of additives and chemicals can impair an otherwise healthy immune system. Some food can aggravate certain conditions and further affect their immunity. Fresh fruit and vegetables are always an option for a quick bolstering of the immune system, if the child is generally healthy.

Keep your child lean. Obesity can depress the immune system by interfering with the ability of white blood cells to produce antibodies. Research shows that overweight babies get twice as many infections as lean babies.

Get your child moving. Exercise both increases the white blood cells’ ability to fight off infection and increases the number of those killer cells mentioned above. Yoga is great!

Lessen exposure to germs. If your child is in part- or full-time daycare, insist on careful hand washing several times a day with natural soap and plain water when caregivers handle your infant. As much as possible, keep your child away from those who are coughing and sneezing, especially other children.

Protect those precious lungs. The weakest spot in a premature baby is the lungs. Be vigilant in keeping your baby away from smokers. Smoking damages the protective lining of babies’ immature respiratory passages, making them more susceptible to infection.