We've all heard the age-old adage "starve a cold, feed a fever" but does the type of illness you have really determine how much you should eat?
When you're sick, you'll likely do anything to feel better faster and get back to feeling like your normal self. Instead of going hungry to outsmart a cold or overeating when a fever strikes, we asked the experts if there's any truth to this myth and if you should really starve a cold or feed a fever.
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Why You Need to Eat When You're Sick
The consensus among medical professionals is that when you're sick, whether it's a cold or the flu, you need to eat.
"It's important to eat enough to fuel your body. If you're sick and are not eating enough, your body will start to break down muscle tissue for energy, which will make you weaker," says Dev Batra, MD.
With a cold or a fever, you may find you're more or less hungry than usual. The body's response to inflammation demands a significant amount of energy to sustain an immune response and fight infection, according to a July 2020 article in the British Journal of Pharmacology.
But, at the same time, you could feel less hungry due to the symptoms of your illness, such as nausea, congestion or a headache.
"If you're not feeling well enough to eat solid foods, try drinking a nutrient-rich smoothie or soup. Having a little bit of food in your stomach will help you feel better and still give your body the energy it needs to fight off the infection," advises David Seitz, MD and medical director for Ascendant Detox.
While you're making sure to eat during your cold or flu recovery, you'll also want to focus on your hydration. Having a cold or the flu can drastically increase your risk of dehydration, especially if you're experiencing vomiting or diarrhea.
Vomiting and diarrhea can cause your body to lose a lot of fluids very quickly, which can be dangerous. "You expel not only the fluid from your stomach but also the electrolytes that were dissolved in it, which are important for maintaining proper hydration levels, regulating muscle and nerve function and other vital processes that keep your body functioning properly," explains Dr. Seitz.
Replacing the fluids and electrolytes lost is especially important when you're sick. "Drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, will help replace the fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea. You can also eat foods high in water content, such as fruits and vegetables, to help replenish your body's fluids," Dr. Batra says.
The Best Foods to Eat When You're Sick
When you have a cold or the flu, you may either feel extra hungry or hardly able to eat. Especially if your appetite is low, focusing on foods that will help your body fight infection and get back to feeling its best.
Focus on eating nutritious foods that will help you to feel better, including fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources and staying hydrated, Dr. Seitz says.
Add these foods to your sick-day menu to help you get back to feeling better:
- Honey: "Honey can help to soothe a sore throat and calm coughs," says Dr. Batra. Reviewing studies with 265 children, researchers found that honey worked as well or better than common ingredients found in some cough syrups, per a December 2014 review in the College of Family Physicians in Canada. Add honey to hot tea or take a spoonful by itself for sore throats and coughs.
- Chicken soup: There's a reason chicken soup is a classic sick-day meal: "It can help to clear out your sinuses and make you feel a little better," says Dr. Batra. Besides the soothing properties of a hot broth, chicken is rich in the amino acid cysteine, which acts as an antioxidant in the body and can help break down mucus in the lungs, according to Mount Sinai.
- Fruit smoothie: Drinking your nutrients can be helpful when you're not feeling very hungry or when congestion or body aches are making it hard to eat a meal. Try one of these nutrient-dense smoothies for maximum energy and antioxidant power.
- Ginger: This spicy root can help clear out your sinuses and has antimicrobial properties to help fight illness-causing bacteria, per a June 2017 article in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
- Bananas: Bananas are a great source of carbohydrates and calories while being easy on the stomach. If you've had any nausea or diarrhea, eating bananas can help replenish the electrolytes lost.
- Coconut water: Staying hydrated is essential when you're sick, especially if you have a fever or have experienced any vomiting or diarrhea. Coconut water is more hydrating than regular water and it can replenish electrolytes like sodium and potassium. One cup of coconut water has 11 percent of your daily value (DV) for sodium and 13 percent DV for potassium.
- Hot tea: Tea can help you stay hydrated, soothe a sore throat and possibly help relieve other symptoms you may have. Herbal tea like ginger can help calm nausea and fight inflammation while chamomile tea can help you relax and get a better night of restorative rest, per Harvard Health Publishing.
- Greek yogurt: This creamy snack is a light and easy way to sneak in protein when your appetite is low. Probiotics in yogurt can also help restore the balance of good bacteria in the gut, helping them fight off illness, per the Cleveland Clinic.
- Citrus Fruits: Citrus fruits are rich in vitamin C, a powerful immune-supporting vitamin. Studies have found that getting 250 to 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily can help reduce the duration of a cold by up to 8 percent in adults — but you may only see the benefits if you've been getting enough vitamin C prior to the start of your illness, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
- British Journal of Pharmacology: "Brain control of appetite during sickness"
- College of Family Physicians in Canada: "Honey for treatment of cough in children"
- Mount Sinai: "Cysteine"
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: "Antibacterial and Antifungal Activities of Spices"
- USDA: "Coconut Water"
- The health benefits of 3 herbal teas"Harvard Health Publishing: "
- Cleveland Clinic: "Probiotics"
- NIH: "Vitamin C"
- The Ohio State University: "Foods to Avoid When You Have the Flu"