You know that old wives' tale: "Starve a fever, feed a cold"? Not true! The reality: When we’re sick, the body needs more calories to function normally. "In fact, for every degree your body temperature is elevated, your metabolic rate is stimulated (or elevated) by seven percent," explains Douglas Kalman, Ph.D., RD, director of nutrition research at Miami Research Associates. The metabolic cost of fever. Baracos VE, Whitmore WT, Gale R. Canadian journal of physiology and pharmacology, 1987, Oct.;65(6):0008-4212. So one of the worst things to do if you have a fever is not eating, as your body needs the fuel to support the immune system."
Additionally, it’s important to stick to regular eating schedules when sick because consuming fewer calories than normal can restrict the body’s ability to heal. In fact, studies suggest reducing calorie intake when sick not only increases susceptibility to the flu, but also worsens symptoms and lengthens the duration of illness. NK cell maturation and function in C57BL/6 mice are altered by caloric restriction. Clinthorne JF, Beli E, Duriancik DM. Journal of immunology (Baltimore, Md. : 1950), 2012, Dec.;190(2):1550-6606.
While a nasty cold or bad case of the flu might ruin your appetite, it’s important to stay well nourished and hydrated. Eating smaller portions of food more frequently (and listening to your body to determine when you’re actually hungry) makes it easier to steadily fuel ourselves through the recovery process. The best foods to eat will keep us hydrated and give our bodies extra energy and nutrients to stay strong (without aggravating upset tummies or clogged-up respiratory systems).
Next time you're feeling under the weather, be sure to get plenty of rest and lots of fluids and try incorporating some of these foods into your diet to experience a quicker—or at least more comfortable—recovery.
Best Foods for Cold-Like Symptoms
The best way to kick a cold is to drink plenty of fluids and eat phlegm-fighting foods. Here are some of the best ones to pick.
Now this one isn't just an old wives' tale—chicken noodle soup actually can help soothe a cold. The chicken contains an amino acid called cysteine, which helps thin mucus in the lungs, and the hot broth helps to keep nasal passages moist, prevent dehydration, and fight inflammation in the throat. Is chicken soup an essential drug? Ohry A, Tsafrir J. CMAJ : Canadian Medical Association journal = journal de l'Association medicale canadienne, 2000, Jan.;161(12):0820-3946. Plus, chicken soup (or vegetable broth) may also help the body kick a cold by stopping congestion and inflammation in their tracks. Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Rennard BO, Ertl RF, Gossman GL. Chest, 2000, Nov.;118(4):0012-3692.
Drinking tea (especially Chinese, Japanese, or American varieties) while you're under the weather can help the body fight off infections, thanks to natural bacteria-fighting compounds in tea. Antibacterial activity of black tea (Camelia sinensis) extract against Salmonella serotypes causing enteric fever. Ciraj AM, Sulaim J, Mamatha B. Indian journal of medical sciences, 2002, Mar.;55(7):0019-5359.Antibacterial activity of black tea (Camelia sinensis) extract against Salmonella serotypes causing enteric fever. Plus, warm liquids can soothe a sore throat and alleviate congestion, so drinks like freshly-brewed green tea or hot water with lemon are ideal for staying hydrated while helping out that stuffy nose. Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. Black tea is not significantly different from water in the maintenance of normal hydration in human subjects: results from a randomised controlled trial. Ruxton CH, Hart VA. The British journal of nutrition, 2011, Mar.;106(4):1475-2662. Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. Saketkhoo K, Januszkiewicz A, Sackner MA. Chest, 1978, Dec.;74(4):0012-3692.
While vitamin C, found in large amounts in citrus, can't necessarily cure the common cold, several studies suggest that it can help reduce the length or severity of colds. Vitamin C supplementation reduces the incidence of postrace symptoms of upper-respiratory-tract infection in ultramarathon runners. Peters EM, Goetzsche JM, Grobbelaar B. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 1993, Feb.;57(2):0002-9165. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Douglas RM, Hemila H, D'Souza R. The Cochrane database of systematic reviews, 2004, Oct.;(4):1469-493X. What's more, fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and limes contain flavonoids, which can help boost the immune system and are great for speeding recovery. Effect of plant flavonoids on immune and inflammatory cell function. Middleton E. Advances in experimental medicine and biology, 1998, Dec.;439():0065-2598.
Staying properly hydrated while sick with a chest cold can keep mucus thin and help lessen congestion. While it’s generally better to eat whole fruit rather than drink it, popsicles are great as a different way to hydrate and are especially easy on the throat. Buy ones made from 100-percent whole fruit, and bonus points if you make your own healthy popsicle.
Spicy foods can make our noses run and our eyes water, but they’re also effective natural decongestants. Eating chili peppers, wasabi, or horseradish can help relieve the symptoms of congestion. A randomized, double-blind, parallel trial comparing capsaicin nasal spray with placebo in subjects with a significant component of nonallergic rhinitis. Bernstein JA, Davis BP, Picard JK. Annals of allergy, asthma & immunology : official publication of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology, 2011, Jun.;107(2):1534-4436. [Efficacy and safety profile of a herbal drug containing nasturtium herb and horseradish root in acute sinusitis, acute bronchitis and acute urinary tract infection in comparison with other treatments in the daily practice/results of a prospective cohort study]. Goos KH, Albrecht U, Schneider B. Arzneimittel-Forschung, 2006, Jun.;56(3):0004-4172.
Best Foods for Stomach Symptoms
When it comes to stomach issues (which can accompany the flu), eating bland foods that are easy to digest and staying hydrated are the best defenses for a quick recovery. Here are a few of your best bets.
Crackers and Toast
Plain, unsalted, or lightly salted crackers and toast are simple, bland foods that are easy on the stomach. These high-starch foods won’t aggravate the stomach and can help with digestion and recovery after an upset stomach.
Bananas are rich in potassium, which is often depleted during bouts of sweating, vomiting, or diarrhea. They’re easy to digest (A+ for bland foods!) and can help replenish lost electrolytes. Bananas as an energy source during exercise: a metabolomics approach. Nieman DC, Gillitt ND, Henson DA. PloS one, 2012, May.;7(5):1932-6203.
Research has shown that ginger is incredibly effective at preventing and soothing nausea and other gastric ailments (such as constipation, bloating, and vomiting). Ginger in the prevention of nausea and vomiting: a review. Palatty PL, Haniadka R, Valder B. Critical reviews in food science and nutrition, 2013, Dec.;53(7):1549-7852. A review of the gastroprotective effects of ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe). Haniadka R, Saldanha E, Sunita V. Food & function, 2013, Apr.;4(6):2042-650X. Drinking ginger tea or flat ginger ale (to avoid disrupting the stomach with carbonation) can help keep you hydrated while also soothing tummy troubles.
Foods to Avoid
Spicy and Acidic Foods
While spicy foods might be good for nasal congestion, they can also be rough on the stomach. Same goes for citrus—it may be beneficial for cold-like symptoms, but fruits like grapefruit, oranges, and lemons can also irritate your stomach lining and and cause more pain and discomfort. Steer clear of both if you're experiencing stomach upset.
Studies show that a high sugar intake can suppress the immune system and cause inflammation—so even though fro-yo sounds like a good idea, skip it when you're feeling sick. High fructose consumption combined with low dietary magnesium intake may increase the incidence of the metabolic syndrome by inducing inflammation. Rayssiguier Y, Gueux E, Nowacki W. Magnesium research, 2007, Apr.;19(4):0953-1424. Glycemic index: overview of implications in health and disease. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Augustin LS. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2002, Jul.;76(1):0002-9165.
Pass on the burgers and fries too: Foods high in fat can be more difficult to digest compared to carbs and protein, and can trigger stomach pains as a result.
The jury’s still out on this one, but many people believe that consuming dairy can promote mucus production, which could worsen congestion when sick. However, current research indicates that this may actually be due to a placebo effect. Milk consumption does not lead to mucus production or occurrence of asthma. Wüthrich B, Schmid A, Walther B. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2006, Feb.;24(6 Suppl):0731-5724. But regardless of whether or not milk changes how much mucus we actually produce, drinking it can create the feeling of thicker mucus, so if that bothers you, it can’t hurt to avoid milk while sick.
Originally published February 2014. Updated October 2015.