An Overlooked Weapon Against the Flu Is Also the Most Effective One

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Photo: Denise Taylor/Getty Images

The frantic guzzling of Emergen-C – or Zicam, or plain ol’ orange juice, or whatever your anti-germ weapon of choice happens to be – may be among the least beloved of our wintertime traditions, but it’s a wintertime tradition nonetheless. Feel the first twinge of a sniffle, realize with a dawning sense of horror that cold and flu season is now upon us, blast your system with vitamin C and zinc, repeat.

Which is fine, if it makes you feel better on a psychological level, but that’s likely all it will do. As Katherine Hobson explained earlier this week for NPR, products claiming to turbo-charge your immune system are relying on marketing fluff rather than proven scientific claims — because there isn’t actually any evidence to suggest that these things work. Even vitamin C, the holy grail of germ-fighters, proved ineffective at staving off colds in a 2013 study (though it did reduce the duration for people who were already infected).

But, she wrote, there’s one proven cold- and flu-prevention strategy that often goes overlooked, and it’s simpler (and a lot more pleasant) than chewing those chalky tabs or mixing up a powdered vitamin cocktail: Just pay attention to what you’re eating. “We know for a healthy immune system you need a healthy diet,” Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University, told NPR. “If you are malnourished, your immune system is going to suffer.”

The upside: The vast majority of us are already getting enough vitamins and other nutrients in our diets, either naturally or through fortified foods. But still, myths like vitamin C superdoses flourish, in part because doctors often don’t have the necessary tools to combat them. As Agustina Saenz, the director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, noted yesterday in Stat, just 25 percent of medical schools require any coursework in nutrition, and only 14 percent of physicians said they’d be comfortable broaching the subject with their patients. And when it is addressed, it’s often in the context of obesity or diabetes — meaning that a healthy diet as a weapon against the common cold is something that stays under the radar, while other, less effective methods get all the attention.