Will vitamins really help to keep winter ills at bay?


When you feel the sniffles starting, do you stock up on grapefruit, gulp down a few vitamin C supplements and hope it goes away? An expert on mindful eating shares why that approach may (or may not) work.

Chicken soup, echinacea, lemon and ginger tea - there seems to be a host of 'tried and trusted' home remedies that claim to cure people from their winter health woes. There's no doubt that what you eat and drink directly affects your health, for better or for worse. We caught up with Terry Harris, a dietitian at Discovery Vitality, to get a clearer idea of what really works.

Q: Can taking vitamin C counteract colds?

Terry: The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). Taking high doses of vitamin C has not been proven to prevent colds. That said, vitamin C can help to shorten the duration of cold symptoms, like a runny nose and sore throat.

But don't confuse a cold with the flu: no 'immune-boosting supplements' will prevent you from getting influenza. By having a flu shot (particularly in March or early April, before the virus spreads), you can protect against catching the flu, or at least minimise the length and intensity of your symptoms.

Q: Must you eat vitamin-rich foods to build your overall immunity, or will taking a supplement do?

Terry: Vitamins and minerals work together to support good health. For example, if your blood is low in iron, vitamin C helps with its absorption in your body, which is why consuming the two together (or with food) is more effective. This is why it generally doesn't make sense to take any single vitamin supplement - the balance between all vitamins and minerals play a big role in their efficacy.

Getting your vitamins and minerals in food form is always best because healthy foods already package an ideal mix of different vitamins and minerals. So you don't have to worry about knowing exactly which supplements to consume with what for best results - just eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods of different colours. Vegetables and fruit that are great sources of vitamin C include peppers, broccoli, red cabbage, guavas, kiwi fruit, and oranges.

Q: If you take a vitamin C supplement, what's better - having one every day during the winter, or just starting to take larger doses once you start feeling ill?

Terry: First check that your overall diet is adequate before you consider taking supplements, and make any changes you can there. If you do need or want to take a supplement, choose a multivitamin and minerals with a probiotic. It's also better to be consistent with supplementation - this can help you maintain a strong immune system so you avoid catching a cold, instead of trying to cure one.

Remember, taking lots of supplements may be a waste as any 'extra' vitamins and minerals that your body does not absorb will just be flushed through your digestive system.

Q: Ok, so what are the best foods for improving your immune system?


  1. Yoghurt- probiotics are beneficial gut bacteria that support the immune system. Look out for yoghurts with added probiotics to reap the benefits.
  2. Legumes (e.g. beans, chickpeas, lentils) and wholegrains (e.g. oats, barley) – these foods contain prebiotics (plant fibre) which support the growth of probiotics, and consequently a healthy immune system.
  3. Plant foods - eating plenty of vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit in a variety of colours up your intake of the different vitamins and minerals necessary for a strong immune system. These foods also contain phytochemicals (active compounds) which benefit your health in a number of ways.
  4. Fish - fish is rich in nutrients like omega 3 fats, taurine, choline, Vitamins B12 and D, as well as the minerals zinc, copper, and selenium, all of which contribute to overall health and consequently an increased resistance against illness.
Q: Getting enough Vitamin D during the winter months also helps build a strong immune system. But with shorter, darker days, do we get enough of it, and if not, how can we get more?

Terry:Sunlight exposure contributes to vitamin D production, so the need to cover up during winter may mean you miss out a bit on your usual intake. Make a point of getting some direct exposure to the sun during the weekends, or take five minutes a day to step outside during your lunch break and soak up a bit of sunlight. You can also eat more vitamin D-rich foods like oily fish, eggs, and milk with added vitamin D (fortified milk) during winter. Try eat a serving of fish (particularly fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, and pilchards) at least twice a week.

Q: What's your personal top tip to eat more mindfully during the cold season?

Terry:Mindful eating takes more effort in autumn and winter because people tend to feel hungry more often in colder weather. What works best for me is preparing meals and snacks in advance, to make it easier and more convenient to choose healthy foods when I'm busy. I like to bulk-cook dishes that are filling and nourishing, like healthy soups and stews.

Just remember, while a healthy diet all year around is important for overall health, getting a flu vaccination is the most important immunity-building measure you can take this season.


Get rewarded for your healthy choices

Discovery Vitality's HealthyFood benefit, created by a team of nutrition and health experts, aims to promote good health and lower the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. Vitality members can earn up to 25% cash back at Pick n Pay or Woolworths for their healthy food purchases.

Check the Pick n Pay and Woolworths HealthyFood catalogues to see which products qualify. Then SMS "Join" to 47751 to start getting rewarded for healthy choices with Vitality.

Discovery Health Medical Scheme covers your flu shots

The Discovery Health Medical Scheme (DHMS) provides cover for flu injections from the available funds allocated to members' Medical Savings Accounts (MSA), depending on their plan.

In cases where members are registered for cover for a chronic condition, the Scheme may also pay it from their Screening and Prevention benefit because they are taking steps to prevent complications. . Learn more about the clinical entry criteria and screening and prevention benefits here.

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