kid eating an apple

Family Health

‘Should I Be Giving My Kids Certain Foods Or Supplements To Protect Their Immune System?’

Apr 14, 2020

I don't know about you, but since being at home 24/7, I've found that I'm on my devices A LOT.

Maybe you're the same way — scrolling your feeds searching for virus updates, ideas to keep your kids busy during the day and tips on how to stay healthy and safe. There's a lot of information out there. Some of it's based on fact, and some of it's based on opinion.

As a health professional, I’m seeing this more than ever in the areas of health and nutrition. Things like:

  • Make sure you take this [insert obscure herb] supplement to boost your immune system.
  • Eat these foods to ward off the coronavirus.
  • Make sure you’re feeding your kids these immune-boosting foods daily to ensure they stay healthy.

Still trying to help the kids with handwashing? Check out the cutest poster with instructions here.

As a mom, I am 100 per cent with you in feeling worried, overwhelmed and confused. I often feel like my head is spinning and that I’m failing at all the things. But as a fellow stressed-out parent and pediatric dietitian, I want to take one source of pressure off your plate (excuse the pun). Here it is:

There are no magical supplements or foods that you or your kids need to be eating right now to “boost immunity." In fact, there are no “immune-boosting" foods at all. And there are certainly no foods or nutrients that will prevent the coronavirus.

The truth is, to “boost your child’s immune system” would actually mean that their immune system would shift into an overactive state, potentially putting them at risk of developing an autoimmune disorder. Not good.

The goal is to keep your child's immune system functioning normally and optimally, to help prevent viruses and illness. To do this, we need to take a holistic approach by ensuring proper sleep, regular activity, proper hygiene and good nutrition (all things that we likely strive for normally anyway).

It's about nutrition

Nutrition-wise, there ARE foods that kids (and adults) should be eating regularly for general well-being, and for normal immune function. But the good news is these are the same foods that you’re likely feeding your kids now (or aiming to feed them at least), based on a balanced and nutrient-dense diet. I’m talking fruits, vegetables, lean plant-based protein sources, healthy fats and whole grains. These foods contain certain essential vitamins and minerals that support normal immune function (such as vitamins C, D, A, protein and zinc).

This dietitian mom serves dessert at the same time as dinner. No, really! Find out why here.

But to be clear — consuming an excess of these nutrients or loading up on foods that contain them, does NOT translate into a super-charged immune system. Science is lacking in the area of immunity and we don’t have evidence to date to support any claim that certain foods or nutrients strengthen immunity.

Nutrition-wise, shift your focus away from trying to figure out which nutrients, supplements or “immune-enhancing” foods to feed your kids, and focus instead on these five things:

1. Set a solid structure for meals and snacks

You, as the parent, should be completely in charge of deciding what the meal and snack schedule looks like (not your kids). This is more important than ever right now, because we can’t rely on school or daycare to provide that structure during the day.

When eating becomes a free-for-all or an all-day grazing situation, kids almost always struggle to fill up on nutritious foods at mealtime because they’re full from snacking, and it can create picky eating tendencies and mealtime battles (a.k.a. more stress for all). Not to mention, if snacks dominate, nutrition will be lacking by the end of the day since mealtime foods, in general, tend to be more nutritious.

So in order to learn how to self-regulate, kids need to learn what real hunger feels like. This means spacing eating times out by about three hours in between. When kids come to the table hungry (not starving), they’re much more likely to fill up on nutritious foods and reach comfortable fullness.

Resistance is more likely to happen when hunger isn’t present, or a post-meal snack is more enticing. Communicate meal and snack rules and boundaries at a calm time (maybe not at mealtime), and ensure that your child knows that the kitchen will be closed after mealtimes. No grazing, random snacking or short-order cooking.

2. Load up on brightly coloured fruits and veggies at meals and snacks

Make sure that you’re serving fruits and/or veggies at every meal and snack. I try to get at least three colours in at every meal and two at snacks. Bell peppers, oranges, berries, carrots, squash, leafy greens and apples will provide lots of vitamin A and C (which support normal immune function). For kids, aim for at least one third of their meals and snacks to consist of fruits and veggies.

3. Supplement with vitamin D

Vitamin D is one nutrient that you DO want to supplement with every day because a deficiency in this fat-soluble vitamin is linked to an increased risk of infection. Since it is found in a limited number of foods, like fortified milk and fatty fish, supplements are often recommended (the dose you need depends on age, gender and how much you get from food). What’s recommended for babies and kids up to the age of 18 is an additional 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D to reach their requirements. I recommend vitamin D drops.

4. Include protein in meals and snacks

Protein plays a role in the body’s immune system, especially for healing and recovery. Serve a variety of protein-rich foods including plant-based beans, lentils, chickpeas, tofu, nuts and seeds — which are also high in fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Animal sources such as seafood, lean meat, poultry, dairy and eggs are great too, and contain additional nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B-12, which support the immune system. For kids, aim for about one quarter to one third of each meal to be protein-rich foods.

5. Limit ultra-processed foods to small servings, once or twice a day (max)

Here’s some troubling news: kids tend to eat a lot of ultra-processed foods. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. On average, about half of Canadians ages two and older (48.3 per cent as of 2015) have diets that are filled with ultra-processed foods. That's stuff like sugary granola bars, boxed mac and cheese, fruit gummy snacks, hotdogs, soft drinks, chicken nuggets and chips.

Now I’m a realist as well as a dietitian, and feel that the odd treat or processed snack is A-OK and fun for kids. But they should definitely not dominate their diet.

Diets high in ultra-processed foods tend to lack nutrition big time. Makes sense, right?  They also increase the risk of chronic disease long term. And right now, when we’re trying to maximize our children’s nutrition and ensure that their immune systems are functioning optimally, we want to focus on nutrient-dense foods, not high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar nutrient-void foods.

My suggestion? Limit these foods to once or twice a day at most. If your child DOES have a diet high in ultra-processed foods, don’t panic. It’s OK. Take little steps every day to introduce more whole, nutritious foods.

Bottom line? Don’t stress about loading your kids up with specific immune-boosting foods or a whole bunch of supplements during this time (or any time), because there’s really no such thing.

Instead, focus on keeping your kids on a consistent daily eating schedule that you design, fill their plates with nutritious foods and limit ultra-processed ones.

Article Author Sarah Remmer
Sarah Remmer

Read and watch more from Sarah here.

Sarah Remmer, RD, is a pediatric registered dietitian and owner of Sarah Remmer Nutrition Consulting, a nutrition consulting and communications company based in Calgary, Alberta. Her website and blog contain practical tips and advice for parents and families on feeding and nutrition (everything from pre-natal nutrition to teens), as well as nutritious and easy recipes and videos. Follow Sarah on Facebook for free advice, tips and family-friendly recipes!

Add New Comment

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.