NOTE: All member and nonmember tickets must be reserved in advance, and masks are strongly recommended for all guests and required for unvaccinated guests ages 2 and up. Learn more about how you can join us!

Nutrition and Immunity Webinar with the UPMC Health Plan
May 11

Nutrition and Immunity Webinar with the UPMC Health Plan

By Maris Altieri RD, LMP Coordinator

Good nutrition is essential for a healthy immune system. While no one food or vitamin can prevent illness, you can protect your health by being mindful of key vitamins, minerals and eating patterns. Join Let’s Move Pittsburgh and UPMC Health Plan health coaches to learn about how to support your immune system through food in this recorded live class.  


Class Materials: Nutrition and Immunity PowerPoint, Orange Julius Recipe, Probiotics and Prebiotics Fact Sheet, Zinc Fact Sheet for Vegetarians


You mentioned zinc as an important nutrient for immunity. Can I get enough zinc following a plant-based diet? How can I increase my zinc intake as a vegetarian?

Zinc is a “small but mighty” nutrient. Although we only need trace amounts of zinc daily, it’s necessary for almost 100 enzymes to carry out vital chemical reactions. These chemical reactions are related to supporting a healthy immune system, creating DNA, healing wounds, and maintaining mental alertness.1 You can certainly get enough zinc on a vegetarian/vegan diet, but the phytates found in whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, can reduce zinc absorption. High phytate vegetarian diets may increase zinc needs by up to 50%!2 To increase the absorption of zinc, try out the methods below:

  • Soaking and sprouting beans, grains, and seeds to decrease the phytate content of food (for my sensitive stomach friends: this makes food more easily digestible too!)
  • Choosing fermented soy foods (e.g. tempeh and miso) to enhance zinc absorption. Fermentation partly destroys phytate, so fermented foods are good zinc sources.3

Do you have any research on elderberries? 

Elderberries are a dark purple fruit grown on the European or black elder tree (Sambucus nigra.) They grow in warm areas of Europe, North America, Asia, and North Africa. The berry, leaves and stems of the elderberry tree are poisonous if consumed raw, and must be carefully cooked to prevent cyanide poisoning (yes, you read that correctly!) If you are unfamiliar with cooking elderberries, it’s recommended to purchase syrups or jams from a reputable source instead of making homemade products due to the risk of accidental poisoning. Nutritionally, elderberries are rich sources of phenolic compounds and anthocyanins, both of which have antioxidant properties.

In human clinical studies, research on the impact of elderberries on cold or flu symptoms are mixed. A systematic review of two small studies found that elderberry extract shortened the duration and lessened the symptoms of the flu when compared to the placebo group, but the review recommended additional, larger clinical trials to confirm these findings.4 The largest study to date published in September 2020 showed no difference in the severity or duration of flu symptoms when using elderberry extract.5 Currently, no published studies have evaluated the usage of elderberries as a treatment for COVID-19.6 In fact, the consumption of elderberries may be harmful to those who have COVID-19. It may increase the release of the cytokine called interleukin 1 beta, which is part of the inflammatory reaction to COVID-19.7 It has the potential of contributing to the “cytokine storm” response in severe COVID-19 infections, which is correlated directly with lung injury and multi-organ failure.8 The consumption of elderberries shouldn’t replace medical advice, vaccines, or other recommended treatments.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one magical food to heal our bodies and protect our immune system.  I know it’s not the most exciting advice, but a balanced diet consisting of a range of vitamins and minerals, combined with healthy lifestyle factors like adequate sleep and exercise and low stress, most effectively prepares the body to fight infection and disease. Remember, you don’t have to check all the boxes at may be impossible for you to do so! Making a conscious effort is the most we can ask of ourselves.

What are vegan sources of probiotics?

Although Greek yogurt is a superstar when it comes to probiotics content, there are many plant-foods that are rich in probiotics as well. Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso paste, apple cider vinegar and kombucha are all excellent sources of probiotics. Interested in making your own fermented foods? Check out our Culinary Arts page for our ferment-focused class offerings. 


  1. Zinc: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Updated Sept 26, 2018. 
  2. Oregon State University. Zinc. Published 2001. Updated June 11, 2015. 
  3. Hunt JR. Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):633S-639S.
  4. Ulbricht C, Basch E, Cheung L, et al. An evidence-based systematic review of elderberry and elderflower (Sambucus nigra) by the Natural Standard Research Collaboration. J Diet Suppl. 2014;11(1):80-120.
  5. Macknin M, Wolski K, Negrey J, Mace S. Elderberry extract outpatient influenza treatment for emergency room patients ages 5 and above: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. J Gen Intern Med. 2020;35(11):3271-3277.
  6. Elderberry. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health website. Updated August 2020. 
  7. COVID-19 FAQ. The University of Arizona Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine website. 
  8.  Mehta, P, McAuley DF, Brown M, et al. COVID-19: consider cytokine storm syndromes and immunosuppression. Lancet. 2020;395(10229):1033-1034.