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What to eat when you have the flu (or a cold)

Nicole Roder writer headshot By | September 30, 2019
Medically reviewed by Michael L. Davis, MD

Cold and flu season is right around the corner. When you’re feeling miserable, food is often the last thing on your mind. You might just not feel like eating. Or perhaps you’re nauseous and the thought of biting into a sandwich makes your stomach turn. 

You’ve probably heard all sorts of advice about what to eat when you’re sick (or what not to eat). It’s hard to parse out which home remedies actually work  and what’s just an old wives’ tale. Should you feed a cold and starve a fever? Does dairy make you produce more mucus? Is ginger ale a cure all for upset tummies? What about the BRAT diet?

It’s important to nourish your body and stay hydrated, especially when you’re ill. Good nutrition helps to boost your immune system. So we checked in with experts to learn what you should (and shouldn’t) eat when you’re sick.

What to eat when you’re sick

When you’re sick, it’s probably a good idea to try to eat something, even if you don’t particularly feel like it. In other words, starving a fever (caused by viral illness) may not work.

“If you have a viral infection, it is better to try to eat,” says Michael J. Brown, R.Ph., a clinical pharmacist in Lake Oswego, Oregon. He says that in studies, mice with viral infections did better when they were fed versus unfed. “Fevers can occur with viruses, so starving the body is not always the best plan.”

But what should you eat? Let’s take a look at the best foods to help your body fight infection.

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The BRAT Diet

The BRAT diet is bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, and it’s perfect for people with upset tummies. “These foods are easy on the stomach and give your body the nutrition it needs,” Brown says. In addition, these bland foods are high in carbs and low in fiber, so they may help to bind loose stools in people with diarrhea.

Other foods that some consider to be part of the BRAT diet include steamed or baked chicken, watermelon, and oatmeal. 

Yogurt

If your cold or flu comes with a sore throat, yogurt’s smooth, creamy texture can feel very soothing. Even better, the live cultures have probiotics and immunity-boosting properties. In one study, flu-infected mice who ate yogurt showed flu-fighting antibodies, suggesting the yogurt cultures helped their bodies fight off infection.

And bonus, yogurt contains protein, which helps your body sustain strength and energy, so hopefully you won’t feel quite as wiped-out. 

Citrus fruits

Citrus fruits—such as oranges, grapefruits, and clementines—are a good source of vitamin C, which is an important antioxidant to boost immune function. 

Although research shows that foods rich in vitamin C do not reduce the risk of getting the common cold (contrary to popular belief), these foods might help make your cold symptoms milder or shorten their duration. You must eat them regularly, though, because starting on vitamin C after cold symptoms begin does not appear to make any difference.

Other foods that have high concentrations of vitamin C include leafy green vegetables like kale, cantaloupe, kiwi, strawberries, and mango. You might want to throw a few of these into a frozen smoothie to ease a sore throat, or drink some fresh squeezed orange juice!

Foods high in zinc

Foods like oysters, crab, chicken, lean meats, chickpeas, baked beans, and yogurt are all high in zinc, the other side of the immune system coin. 

Think of the immune response cells as the infection first responders. They see your flu as a fire that must be put out. But if they’re left all alone, they’ll spiral out of control, causing painful and dangerous inflammation. That’s where zinc comes in. 

Studies show that zinc acts to balance out the immune response and works as a natural anti-inflammatory. If you can’t stomach shellfish and poultry, try taking a zinc supplement when you first notice a cold or flu symptom.  

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What to drink when you’re sick

Clear fluids

If you just can’t keep anything down, there’s no need to force feed yourself, but it is absolutely crucial to keep yourself hydrated. “[It’s important to drink fluids] especially with a fever, where you tend to get dehydrated more quickly,” says Dr. Susan Besser, a family physician in Baltimore. “Also, fluids tend to help thin the extra mucus you make with a cold, which makes it easier to blow it out.” Sports drinks, like Gatorade, or broth can help with hydration if you can keep them down. But it’s important to note that sports drinks contain a lot of sugar and store-bought soups are high in sodium. Consider diluting them with water—or just stick to water.

Herbal tea

A great way to get your fluids in is to drink hot tea. Certain teas brewed with hot water might help soothe some of your cold and flu symptoms as well. According to Brown, the menthol in peppermint tea might help clear nasal congestion or runny nose. And elderberry tea could do the same by reducing swelling in your nasal passageways and relieving a stuffy nose. Ginger tea often eases nausea symptoms and might even help you heal faster.  “Ginger tea may also help the body fight off the viruses involved with these ailments as well as relieve nasal and chest congestion,” Brown says. (And, again, be careful of the added sugar to store-bought teas.)

Foods and beverages to avoid when you’re sick

Unlike the choices above, there are some foods that might actually make your symptoms worse. Here is a list of foods to avoid:

Greasy foods

You might consider mom’s fried chicken to be your favorite comfort food, but if you’re sick, it’s best to stick to the non-greasy variety. Dr. Besser says that greasy foods like pizza, french fries, or anything soaked in oil are harder to digest and not the best choice for someone with an upset stomach. 

Dairy

It is not true that dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and ice cream, cause your body to make more mucus. However, Dr. Besser says these foods might be harder to digest, so it’s best to steer clear until you feel better. 

Alcohol and caffeine

Be careful with beverages that contain alcohol (wine, beer, liquor) or caffeine (coffee, tea, soda) when you are sick, whether it’s a viral or bacterial infection. Drinking caffeine or alcohol can lead to dehydration. That’s very dangerous, especially when your illness is accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea. In addition, alcohol might interact with your over-the-counter or prescription medications. It’s probably best to avoid these two until you’re feeling better. 

Eat and drink to feel better

Nourish your body and stay hydrated, especially when you have a cold or the flu. Good nutrition helps to support your immune system so you can recover faster. 

However, there is no need to push it if you just don’t feel like eating. According to Dr. Besser, the most important thing to keep in mind is that you should eat and drink to feel better. “Let your body be your guide,” she says. 

So, if you don’t feel like eating, don’t. Most likely, your body will tell you to pick up a piece of toast or a bowl of chicken soup before long. As long as you stay hydrated and don’t go without food for too long, you’ll stay safe. And if you do feel hungry, try one of the foods listed above.