The misery of the flu will have anyone scrounging the internet for home remedies. Maybe some chicken soup and hot tea are just what you need to beat the virus into submission. But can food really make you better?
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Immunologist Cassandra Calabrese, DO, explains how to use food to your advantage this flu season — and all year round. The right diet can help you prevent illness and recover faster if the flu knocks you down.
Can a healthy diet help when you’re sick?
Diet matters when you have the flu, but not because one single food is a magic cure. Instead, eating a healthy diet boosts your immune system. A strong immune system can prevent illness and help you bounce back sooner.
“There’s no doubt that a healthy diet improves your immunity to illness,” Dr. Calabrese says. “What you put in your body is important for your overall health, including your immune system.”
Since your immune system is your body’s defense against invaders like the flu, it pays to feed it well. Forget about “starving a fever” because your body needs nutritious foods when you’re sick. Here’s a plus: The best immune-boosting foods are available at the grocery store and there’s no extreme fad dieting required.
Mom’s advice to drink more fluids when you’re sick really holds water. Your body needs more hydration when you have the flu or any illness that causes a fever.
“Your body needs hydration more than any specific food when you’re fighting an illness,” says Dr. Calabrese. “Stay hydrated with water or electrolyte-rich beverages. You can also drink broths and herbal tea. But don’t have caffeinated drinks like coffee or soda.”
Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
The typical American diet is full of foods that produce inflammation. And when the body has too much inflammation, the immune system struggles. Lower inflammation and help your immune system by changing the type of fats you eat.
Reduce saturated fats
Saturated fats cause inflammation, so reduce your intake now — before you get sick. They’re found in:
- Baked goods, such as cookies and cakes.
- Full-fat dairy, including cream, cheese and butter.
- Palm oil.
- Red meat.
Avoid trans fats
Eliminate trans fats from your diet. They’re bad for your heart and cause inflammation. Avoid foods that contain “partially hydrogenated” oils, even if the label says “0 grams of trans fat per serving.” Food manufacturers can make this claim if the product has up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving.
Many food manufacturers have eliminated trans fats from their products, but some packaged foods and baked goods still contain them, such as:
- Pie crusts.
Increase omega-3 fats
Eat more omega-3 fats to keep your immune system in good shape. Fatty fish are a good source of this anti-inflammatory fat, so consider eating:
- Albacore tuna.
Some fish contain mercury and other contaminants that can be harmful to babies before birth or children. Pregnant or nursing women and parents of small children should check with a doctor about eating fish.
Some plant foods also contain omega-3s:
- Canola oil.
- Chia seeds.
- Milled flaxseeds or flaxseed oil.
- Pumpkin seeds.
One diet stands out as an immune booster. “I’m a big fan of the Mediterranean diet,” says Dr. Calabrese. “It’s a great diet for immune health.”
The Mediterranean diet refers to traditional eating patterns of people who live near the Mediterranean Sea. Eating a Mediterranean diet means having lots of:
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Lean proteins like fish and poultry.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Olive oil (in moderation).
- Whole grains.
And limit or skip these foods:
- Processed meats like hot dogs and bacon.
- Red meat.
- Sugar and desserts.
- Processed, fried and fast foods.
- White or refined breads and grains.
It might seem overwhelming to make big changes to your diet, but you don’t have to overhaul everything right away. Start making changes in your diet gradually.
Switch to whole-grain breads and have fruit for dessert. Once you’re comfortable with those changes, take another step. You might replace red and processed meat with fish and lean chicken. Instead of full-fat milk, try fat-free.
Fight flu with diet and a flu shot
Diet changes cannot guarantee that you’ll never get sick. But it’s a good way to help your immune system fight off viruses and other illnesses.
Don’t forget about the biggest step you can take to prevent the flu this year. “The flu shot is the most important thing you can do,” says Dr. Calabrese. “Wash your hands regularly and eat a healthy diet. If you do all of these things, you’ve got a good chance of staying healthy this flu season.”