There was a time when “feed a cold, starve a fever” served as cutting-edge medical advice.
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This nugget of wisdom traces back to a dictionary compiled in 1574 by English lexicographer John Withals. His guidance — “fasting is a great remedy of fever” — has certainly stood the test of time as an oft-quoted rule.
But the belief doesn’t quite stand up to current medical guidelines. (Sorry, Mr. Withals!) To learn what qualifies as a best practice in the 21st century, we asked family physician Simon Hodes, MB ChB.
Feeling under the weather? Try to eat and drink
Starving yourself if you feel hungry is never a great idea. And if you spike a fever while trying to fight off an illness or infection, then eating nutritious food can actually help reinforce your immune system and help you battle whatever bug is in your body.
A fever also cranks up your internal temperature, speeding up your metabolism. That stoked furnace means that you burn more calories — which makes replenishing them more important.
Drinking fluids is especially critical in this situation, too, as your body heating up with a fever can leave you dehydrated. “The main thing during any illness is to drink plenty of fluids,” says Dr. Hodes.
(In case you were wondering, most healthy adults catch a cold two to three times a year, while the typical healthy child gets about four minor illnesses annually.)
“If you feel like it, you should try to eat like you normally would with a fever or a cold,” says Dr. Hodes. “There’s no reason to intentionally stop eating.”
What if you don’t feel hungry?
It’s no secret that a cold or fever can wipe away your appetite. If you’re just not able to eat your normal meals for a few days, don’t worry too much. But do focus on keeping up your fluid intake.
“Many of us are not living on the edge of nutrition,” notes Dr. Hodes. “We’ve got plenty of reserves if we lose our appetite for a few days. But try to get in what you can and definitely make sure to keep your fluid intake up.”
However, if your appetite doesn’t return after a few days, contact your healthcare provider. You should also connect with your doctor if your condition gets worse. Concerning symptoms would include:
- Struggling to eat or drink due to a sore mouth or throat.
- New rashes.
- Sudden confusion.
- Shortness of breath.
“If things don’t seem right or you’re ever in doubt about what to do next for you or your child, it’s time to contact someone for advice,” says Dr. Hodes. “Basically, if in doubt, check it out.”
What should you eat with a cold or fever?
The traditional bowl of chicken soup (or even plain broth) remains the gold standard when it comes to eating while sick, says Dr. Hodes. (It seems that old wisdom isn’t always off-target.)
So, why is chicken soup or broth so good for you when you’re sick? For starters, the liquid-based meals work to prevent dehydration. They’re loaded with nutrients and antioxidants that can help you get well, too.
Adding chicken to the soup brings protein and iron to boost your immune system, and any healthy veggies thrown into the pot are … well, just naturally healthy to eat.
Plus, soup’s soothing warmth and steam can help ease a sore throat and clear up any mucus.
“Chicken soup or broth just makes you feel better,” says Dr. Hodes. “Even if you’re not feeling too hungry, some small sips can provide you with both fluid and nutrition in one go.”
Other food and drink to seek out when sick include:
- Fruits and veggies high in vitamin C, including citrus fruit, strawberries, leafy green, broccoli and potatoes. (Juice can do the trick, too, while also helping to keep you hydrated.)
- Herbal tea. Hydrating and relaxing!
- Comfort food. You don’t feel well and you need food. A favorite dish may brighten your mood while also filling your belly.
You also may want to try these immunity-boosting foods suggested by an immunologist. If you add them to your diet regularly, you may even be able to avoid getting sick.
So, why was ‘starve a fever’ ever advised?
There was some good logic to the advice offered by Mr. Withals in 1574, which helps explain why we still quote him.
In simplest terms, the notion of “starving” a fever dates back to the idea that one should avoid hot food while dealing with a high temperature. (On the flip side, if you had chills with a cold it seemed wise to “feed” it and warm yourself up.)
“So, it’s understandable how they reached that conclusion back then,” says Dr. Hodes.
But today we know that old adage isn’t quite right. But with a little modification, it can still work today. “Maybe feed a cold and a fever … and most of all, make sure to drink enough, too,” advises Dr. Hodes. “Listen to your body. It will tell you what to do.”
And if in doubt, check it out.