If you’ve ever heard the old adage “Feed a cold, starve a fever,” you may be inclined to forego food when you have the flu. But forget what you’ve heard. The truth is that when you’re sick, whether with a cold or a fever, healthy food is exactly what your body needs to stay strong enough to fight off the bug that’s got you down.
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Family medicine specialist Neha Vyas, MD, walks you through the basics of a flu-fighting diet, including what to stock up on and what to avoid.
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. Vyas. “Stay hydrated with water or electrolyte-rich beverages. You can also drink broths and herbal tea.”
Just be sure to stay away from caffeinated drinks like coffee and soda, and from any drinks high in sugar, which can actually further dehydrate you.
The best foods for fighting the flu
When you’re sick, your body needs nutritious foods more than ever. Your immune system is your body’s defense against invaders like the flu, so it pays to feed it well.
“When you have influenza, you have to do what your body is craving,” Dr. Vyas says. “The fever and the body aches take a lot out of your body, but broths, soups and hot liquids go a long way in helping your body to recover and replenish.”
She shares some of the best foods for fighting the flu.
Broth is rich in nutrients and antioxidants, and it helps prevent dehydration. It’s also warm and cozy, helping to soothe your sore throat and clear up that stuffy nose.
If you happen to be reading this before the flu hits, consider making your own broth — whether you go with a vegetarian version or electrolyte-rich bone broth — to keep in the freezer just in case. And although homemade is healthiest, you can also get it from the grocery store or order it from a local restaurant if you’re feeling too crummy to cook.
You can super-charge your broth by adding protein- and iron-rich chicken and healthy veggies, which will better enable your body to better fight off the flu.
Whether you crave matzah ball soup, lentil dal or regular old canned chicken noodle soup, the warmth of the liquid will feel soothing on your sore throat. And one study found that the ingredients in chicken soup collectively reduce inflammation and improve your immune system’s response to illness.
If you don’t have a go-to chicken soup recipe of your own, you’re welcome to borrow ours: Mom’s Chicken Soup will keep you comforted and help you get well soon.
Warm liquids typically soothe a sore throat better than cold ones, but if you want to switch it up (and keep hydrating), an icy treat may help cool down that inflamed tissue.
Just make sure you’re choosing ones that are all-natural and don’t have any added sugars. You can even make your own!
Fruits and veggies with vitamin C
Vitamin C is largely associated with a strengthened immune system and may help to reduce cold and flu symptoms.
Foods high in vitamin C include:
- Citrus fruit, such as oranges and grapefruits.
- Brussels sprouts.
You may not think of a salad as comfort food, but greens like spinach, kale and cabbage are packed with vitamin C and iron that can fight inflammation and help you feel better faster.
If you can’t stand the idea of scarfing a salad while sick, add a leafy green to your chicken soup or other cozy stew to reap the benefits in a slightly more flu-friendly form.
Fruit or vegetable juice
Bring on the OJ! Whole fruits and veggies are always best, but sometimes when you’re sick, you just can’t handle a whole lot of food, period. In a pinch, sip on natural fruit or veggie juice to pack in the nutrients you’re missing.
“Hot tea can soothe a sore throat, while the steam helps to clear up a stuffy nose,” Dr. Vyas says. Add a little bit of honey for an extra dose of soothing. It’s been found to reduce nighttime coughing and improve sleep in sick kids (though it shouldn’t be given to children under 12 months).
Studies show that eating garlic in the raw may boost your immunity. You’ll get the most benefit from raw garlic, rather than cooked garlic or garlic supplements. You can even put it in hot tea — just add a little bit of honey to mask the strong scent and make for a more favorable flavor.
Ginger, cayenne and turmeric are associated with a number of cozy, comforting foods, too, and each has various health properties. “Among a variety of different cultures, they’re a big part of our immune repertoire,” Dr. Vyas says.
Turn to comfort foods
When you’re sick with the flu, you may not feel like eating much — so turn to whatever sounds best for you at the time.
“Oftentimes, your taste buds change and things just don’t taste good,” Dr. Vyas says. “Look for comfort foods, like those that remind you of things your family gave you when you were growing up.”
Choosing foods that soothe you can go a long way toward helping you feel better, and you’ll get the calories and nourishment your body so badly craves.
Is the BRAT Diet right for the flu?
You may remember Mom’s long-ago advice that when you’re sick, you should follow the BRAT Diet, which stands for bananas, (white) rice, apples and toast – low-fiber foods that will soothe your stomach.
These plain foods are easy for the body to digest and are often recommended when someone is not feeling well. But this diet is actually associated with the stomach flu (which isn’t actually the flu at all), not with influenza.
Still, it might be appealing when you’re sick with the flu. “The BRAT Diet won’t provide you a ton with vitamins and nutrients,” Dr. Vyas says, “but it’s easy on your body, so if it feels good and it’s what you want, go for it.”
Foods to avoid when you have the flu
Just as important as what you should eat when you have the flu is what you should avoid eating.
- Alcohol weakens your immune system and can make it harder to fight the flu.
- Caffeine can further dehydrate you, so avoid coffee, black tea, soda and the like. “Caffeine is also a stimulant and when your body’s already working hard to fight the flu, you don’t want to add anything that might take away from its ability to do that,” Dr. Vyas says.
- Dairy products can thicken mucus, which will compound your congestion.
- Sugar cause inflammation, which your body is trying extra-hard to fight off when you have the flu.
- Spicy foods can trigger a runny nose, which you may already be fighting when you have the flu. “When you’re starting to feel better, incorporate a little bit of horseradish or pepper into your diet to help clear out congestion — but shy away in the thick of your sickness,” Dr. Vyas says.
Strengthen your immune system with food year-round
Right now, focus on recovering from the flu. But when you feel better, consider working immunity-boosting foods into your diet all the time, not just when you’re sick. The right diet can not only help you recover faster when you get sick; it might even help prevent illness in the first place.