Experts say we need to plan for a flu outbreak that could claim hundreds of thousands of lives. Although the last two winters have brought only mild strains of flu, the viruses are constantly mutating and it’s only a matter of time before a powerful strain emerges. Previous killer flu strains included the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people because it mutated into a form the human immune system couldn?t fight off.

Some virologists have been looking at the genetic structure of the virus that caused the 1918 flu, as well as a serious outbreak in Hong Kong in 1997, for clues that could help doctors combat another dangerous outbreak. There have been three killer flu epidemics in the last century, in 1918, 1957 and 1968. Even though the 1957 and 1968 outbreaks were less severe than the Spanish flu, they still accounted for 40,000 deaths between them.

Researchers think there?s a 30 year cycle between killer flu epidemics, meaning we?re overdue for another one. Researcher Robert Coleman says, “It will be several months at least after the start of the pandemic before a vaccine is available. Antiviral drugs could help during this period, but stockpiles would need to be in place well in advance.?

Americans spend $1.7 billion a year on vitamin and mineral supplements each year, trying to fight off the flu, but everything our bodies need to do the job can be found in food. But the foods nutritionists recommend may surprise you: beef, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, tea and yogurt. Each of them should be eaten daily.

Nutritionist Heidi Skolnik says, “A three-ounce portion of beef?is an important source of zinc.” Zinc helps develop white blood cells that fight off foreign bacteria and viruses. It can also be found in poultry, pork, fortified cereals, yogurt, milk and oysters.

Sweet potatoes are one of the best sources of vitamin A, which is great for the immune system. “Think orange, foods like sweet potatoes, and also carrots, squash, pumpkin,” Skolnik says. “They all are great sources of beta-carotene, which the body quickly turns into vitamin A.”

Mushrooms are another high-immunity food. “Like beef, mushrooms help in the production of white blood cells in the body,” says Skolnik. “Some recent studies have also found that they may make white blood cells act more aggressively against foreign bacteria.”

Skolnik recommends a cup of black or green tea a day. “Tea is a great source of polyphenols,” she says. “Polyphenols clean up free radicals, damaging compounds that can hurt your DNA and accelerate aging.”

Yogurt is important to eat, especially after you have been prescribed antibiotics. “When we take antibiotics they destroy most of the bacteria in our body,” Skolnik says. “The problem is that there are some beneficial bacteria that the antibiotics take care of as well. We need these, especially those found in our intestines, to help us break down foods.”

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