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What in Food Protects You From Disease

In 1905, a British scientist discovered special ingredients within food. When people did not receive these ingredients, they developed disease. It was during research into the cause of “Beriberi” (they didn’t know yet, but it’s a disease caused by severe vitamin deficiencies) that scientists discovered that eating unpolished rice appeared to protect people from Beriberi, but unpolished rice did not.

The next year a British biochemist firmly announced that certain food factors were critical to human health. In 1912, we finally identified those factors and called them “vitamins”. “Vita” meant life, and “amine” was a compound discovered in the thiamine within rice husks. (Several years later, they dropped the last “e”.) Thus, searching for the cause of Beriberi unveiled the first known vitamin, thiamine (or vitamin B1). And the hypothesis behind these food factors was made: a lack of vitamins makes your body unable to fight illness.

Food is medicine, as our bodies can’t produce vitamins like it can other things like enzymes. There are now 13 vitamins, nine of which are “water soluble” which means your body can’t store them so they must be ingested every day. These include vitamin C and eight B vitamins. The other four vitamins – A, D, E and K are “fat soluble” and your body has the ability to store them, so they aren’t as critical to be taken each day. Vitamins in supplement form are extracted from food – more clear proof that food is the ultimate source of disease protection.

The scope of this disease protection is far too large for the confines of an article. So let’s focus in on one outstanding area: which ones boost our immune system, and protect us from foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses.

Vitamin C: This is a powerful protective agent and is well proven to boost the immune system.1 Getting one gram a day of vitamin C leads to higher levels of immune cells called natural killer cells, and causes more activated T cells as well. Vitamin C releases interferon, the virus-fighting antibody that wraps around the surface of your cells, and boosts production of white blood cells that of course are the primary infection fighters. Where is it found most? Try red chili peppers, sweet peppers, parsley, broccoli, kale, cabbage, strawberries, watercress and citrus fruits.

Vitamin E: This nutrient is a powerful antioxidant in the body’s fats and oils. It stimulates production of B immune cells and those natural killer cells. For those who have declining immune systems, vitamin E can actually reverse that decline. Studies have found that people with higher vitamin E levels have more antibodies in their blood and suffer fewer infections than those with less vitamin E.2 Overall, this nutrient cranks up the strength of the immune system significantly.

Beta carotene: This nutrient is the one that gives fruit and vegetables their vibrant colors. Among the many things this nutrient does is protecting immune cells from damage. It increases your body’s production of natural killer cells and helper T cells that fight infection. Beta-carotene appears to help those who have compromised immune systems, and also stimulates the immune systems of healthy people. It is especially pertinent for older adults whose immune cells are in smaller numbers and not necessarily functioning as well as they used to. You can pump yourself full of beta carotene by eating any vegetable or fruit that is very colorful – through food is what experts believe is best for this nutrient. 

Zinc: This all-powerful mineral performs a long list of functions in the body and is a valuable medical treatment. Even a mild zinc deficiency can impair your immune system slightly, leaving it exposed to an opportunistic pathogen. Zinc’s link to your immune system is beyond question. It blocks a virus’s ability to make proteins, prevents virus particles from entering cells, and spurs our cells to release interferon – the protein that fights off viruses by stimulating T-cells into action.  And lastly, because it is both an antiviral and antibacterial, it means it fights off invaders as soon as they arrive. Find zinc highest in chicken, beef, dairy product, whole grains, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds.

Selenium: An extremely powerful nutrient for your immune system. It is found highest in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, shellfish, legumes and organ meats. The mineral has been long tied to potentially deadly disease-shielding abilities. It is thought to also kill off many infections, making it beneficial in preventing viral infections. As well as the many other immune system draining conditions selenium helps prevent all thrive on a malfunctioning or weakened immune system. Selenium boosts the level of antibodies in your blood and also encourages your immune system to produce more white blood cells. It is also part of a protein that is right there in all aspects of cellular function, meaning your immune cells may rely on selenium for proper function.

Probiotics: Straying from the vitamin-mineral angle, we find good bacteria which is overflowing in cultured yogurt. Probiotics may act as disease fighting agents as well. A brand new study from the journal Nutritional Cancer found that there exists a “promising” body of evidence that suggests friendly bacteria reduces the risk of prostate cancer.3 Among a few reasons, they point out that this protective role is in part due to the bacteria’s influence on your immune system.

Yours In Good Health,

Dr. Victor Marchione, M.D.
Bel Marra Nutritionals


 About the Author
 Dr. Marchione is a respected leader in the field of smoking cessation and pulmonary medicine. He has been featured on ABC News and World Report, CBS Evening News and the NBC Today Show and is the editor of the popular The Food Doctor newsletter and is also the chief formulator at Bel Marra Nutritionals. He is also a contributor to the Doctors Health e-Bulletin, a free daily e-zine providing up-to-date health discoveries, advice and breakthroughs. For more information please visit


1. 60th meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology
2. JAMA 1997;277:1380-1386
3. Nutr Cancer. 2004;49(1):14-24

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