If a sore throat, stuffy nose and headache are depleting your energy, arming your immune system with nutritious food may not be at the top your priority list.

Eating the right foods, however, can significantly speed up recovery from a cold or flu. Giving your body the appropriate vitamins and minerals helps keep your immune system strong, says Stephanie Kay, registered nutritionist at Kay Nutrition in Ottawa. And a strong immune system is key to kicking a cold — and preventing illness in the first place.

Here are four food tips to consider:

1. Say yes to protein
Eating protein helps to build antibodies, which act as your defense system for fending off bacteria and viruses.

Kay suggests animal proteins, such as poultry, seafood and red meat (in moderation), as well as vegetable proteins, which can be found in beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.

2. Take ACES
Vitamins A, C and E, and selenium— collectively known as ACES — are regarded as a supergroup of nutrients because of their antioxidant qualities. That means they reduce the damage caused by free radicals.

While ACES can be consumed in the form of nutritional supplements, Kay recommends finding these antioxidants in the foods in which they occur naturally.

Vitamin A. Orange-pigmented vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, squash and carrots, are all good sources of vitamin A. As seasonal vegetables, these foods also have a warming effect on the body during cold weather, Kay says. 

Vitamin C. While most people look to citrus fruit for vitamin C, this antioxidant can also be found in bell peppers, broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

Vitamin E. Many nuts and seeds, such as sunflowers and almonds, are high in vitamin E, Kay says.

Selenium. Selenium is an essential mineral that can be found in tuna, shrimp, salmon and turkey.

3. Indulge in the right seasoning
Herbs and spices are not only useful in adding flavor to your meals; they can also help to prevent cold and flu symptoms.

Spices such as turmeric and cinnamon are anti-inflammatory spices that strengthen your immune system, Kay says. Kitchen staples garlic and onion are also powerful antidotes to the common cold.

4. Reduce alcohol and sugar
As flu season and the holidays coincide, it can be tough to stick to a nutritious diet. However, Kay says, it's important to reduce your alcohol and sugar intake if you want to maintain your health throughout the season.

Refined sugar found in candy, sweet drinks and baked goods suppresses your immune system for up to four hours, Kay says, making you more susceptible to illness. Drinking alcohol has the same effect.

"It is the holidays, so a cocktail here and there isn't going to be the end of the world," Kay says. "But if you drink alcohol often in addition to eating sweets, and you're not sleeping well or exercising, that's when you're making yourself vulnerable."