You’ve undoubtedly heard the expression “feed a cold, starve a fever.” But health care experts almost uniformly dismiss that adage as nothing but an old wives’ tale.
“I don’t know any health care provider who would tell somebody not to eat,” says Sophia Thomas, a family nurse practitioner in New Orleans, La. “Good nutrition is probably more important when you’re sick than ever.”
There’s not one magic food that will make everyone feel better, says Joan Salge Blake, registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Because most people don’t eat much when they feel lousy, she suggests they eat whatever foods appeal to them, just to take in some calories.
But health care practitioners agree that the most important thing to consume when you’re sick with a cold or fever is plenty of fluids. “The appetite comes back once the person starts feeling better, so hydration is the key,” Thomas says.
Here are some suggestions for the foods and drinks most likely to make you feel better:
Soup. It’s a cliché for a reason:Chicken soup contains those crucial fluids, as well as some vegetables and lean protein. Some studies have even shown that it has some medicinal benefit, although no one is exactly sure why. Researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center theorized in 2000 that the ingredients in the soup slowed the movement of infection-fighting cells in the body. But pretty much any similar broth-based soup will have a similar effect, Blake says. “And soup is a very warm, comforting type of food,” she added.
Whole foods. When you do feel like eating, try to stick to nutritious foods as much as possible to take full advantage of nature’s healing powers. “Try to get as close to the real food as you can,” says nurse practitioner Angela Golden, president-elect of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. “If you get orange juice, make sure you get 100 percent orange juice…not sugared orange-flavored drinks.”
Healthy “treats.” Stock up on healthy snacks that seem a little special. “They may entice you to eat more,” says Blake, who prefers to keep bags of frozen mango slices in her freezer for just such occasions. Avoid high-calorie snacks that don’t pack much nutritional punch. It won’t harm you to eat cookies or chips, but it won’t help you, either.
Protein or nutrition shakes. Hungry but nothing sounds good? This is one time it’s OK to drink your calories, as long as they’re beneficial ones. Thomas suggests a beverage like Ensure or Carnation Instant Breakfast for energy and extra vitamins and minerals.
Caffeine-free drinks. You should drink lots of liquids when you’re sick, but caffeine is a diuretic, so coffee and caffeinated tea will just drain your body of fluids. Steer clear of alcohol for the same reason, even though you may be feeling better—it could slow your recovery.
Hot beverages. They’ll replenish fluids, soothe a sore throat and even open up sinuses.
Golden recommends choosing a decaffeinated tea, like jasmine or mint, which also doesn’t need a lot of sweetener.