6 Foods to Eat When You're Sick — and What Not to Eat
Instead of heading for the medicine cabinet, stock the kitchen with these natural cold-fighters
Grandma’s chicken soup is a well-known elixir for the sniffles, but it's not the only food that can relieve the misery of a cold. Dietitians and nutritionists recommend the next time you're feeling ill, look to the kitchen to ease what ails you. Besides soup, certain foods have properties that can combat illness and boost your immune system.
“In our society we’ve been programmed for the quick fix,” says clinical nutritionist Christa Orecchio, CN, who says she prefers the "deeply medicinal properties" of food to medication. “When you're sick, if you can give your body what it needs and take away what it doesn’t, the self-healing mechanism is innate," she says.
Here are six foods she and other nutritionists recommend eating when you have a cold.
Taking ginger is a traditional way to combat nausea. There's science to back this up: A 2013 review of research on ginger and nausea found 1 gram of powdered ginger a day relieved nausea from many different causes. When you're ill, you can get your dose of ginger by sipping a good-quality ginger ale. It not only provides ginger, it can help hydrate you and serve up calories if you're vomiting or have diarrhea. If you’d prefer something hot, brew up some ginger tea. Use ginger tea bags or make it yourself with fresh ginger. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil and add a 2-inch piece of ginger root cut into thin slices. Let it simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. When it's cool cool enough to drink (but still hot), add a slice of lemon. Besides easing indigestion, a steaming cup of ginger tea may help quiet a coughing attack.
Chicken bone broth with saltines
Nutritionists often recommend clear broth as an easy-to-digest way to hydrate and replace lost electrolytes. When you make soup from chicken, cook the bird with the bones. They'll provide minerals and also collagen, which will help fortify the lining of your stomach and strengthen your immune system. During cooking, add a little apple cider vinegar to help draw out the minerals.
Nancy Farrell, RD, a registered
dietitian in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and a spokesperson for the Academy of
Nutrition and Dietetics, says she keeps a supply of broth-based soups, saltine
crackers and ginger ale around, particularly during cold and flu season.
“When we’re sick and have diarrhea, we want foods that are low in fat, fiber and sugar so we don't create more digestive stress on our intestines," says Farrell. "When our gut is not feeling well, we don’t want to overtax it.”
Related: Quiz: Flu Myths and Facts
Lentils are a good source of zinc, a mineral research has found shortens the duration of the common cold. Studies have focused on zinc lozenges, but some people can't tolerate them. And, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), some zinc nasal sprays have harmed people's sense of smell. Getting zinc from foods like lentils, as well as seafood and meat, won't cause any side effects. Some good recipes for cold season lentil soup include Perfect-When-You’re-Sick-Moroccan Lentil Soup from the website Tasty Gluten-Free Meals and Hearty Lentil, Potato and Carrot Soup from the website Love and Lentils.
Pineapple contains the powerful enzyme bromelain, which can dissolve harmful bacteria in the stomach and intestine, according to a 2012 article in the Scholars Academic Journal of Pharmacy. The research also found bromelain can suppress coughs and loosen mucus. Other scientists have found bromelain has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving powers. Orecchio recommends “flu cider” — pineapple juice spiked with garlic, turmeric, ginger, cayenne pepper and a splash of apple cider vinegar. She says in her experience, drinking a liter of this concoction a day while battling flu can cut the amount of time you're sick in half. “It tastes okay,” she said. “I haven’t had any trouble getting kids to drink it, if that’s any barometer.”
Many dietitians recommend drinking a cup of orange juice every day for the vitamin C it provides. There's no scientific proof orange juice shortens the duration of a cold, but one study in the journal Thorax found that for children, consuming citrus fruit or kiwi fruit provided "highly significant" protection against wheezing. If you have a sore throat, you may want to mix your OJ into a smoothie or water it down a bit.
A caution about grapefruit, which can interact with a number of medications, according to the FDA. if you're taking any supplements or prescription or over-the-counter medications, ask your doctor if it's safe to drink grapefruit juice. If your medication interacts with grapefruit juice, the FDA recommends also avoiding juice made from Seville oranges or tangelos.
Turmeric, which contains the compound curcumin, is popularly known as a superspice. Curcumin has anti-inflammatory and other medicinal properties, according to many scientific studies. It’s used in all sorts of curries, but when you’re sick you may want to prepare creamy turmeric tea: Heat a cup of milk and mix in ½ teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black or cayenne pepper and a dash of honey. Caution: Don’t give honey in any form to children under age 1. Alternative medicine physician Andrew Weil, MD, advises on his blog you should avoid turmeric if you’re pregnant or if you have gallstones or bile duct dysfunction.
Consider adding a daily a multivitamin
“I recommend a food first approach — try to get your nutrients through foods before supplements,” said Torey Armul, RD, a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “But it’s never a bad idea to take a multivitamin as a nutritional safety net, especially during this time of year when we may not eat as many fruits and vegetables and the risks of colds and flu is higher.”
Plus some research suggests taking vitamin C supplements regularly shortens the length of the common cold.
Foods to avoid
Orecchio, Farrell and other nutrition experts say if you’re sick, it's best not to eat foods that are hard to digest.
- Donuts, pastries and other foods high in sugar and fat.
- Foods that tax the immune system. This can include foods many people have sensitivities to, including gluten, corn, dairy and soy.
- Spicy foods. Although they can provide health benefits, they can be difficult to tolerate when you’re having digestive problems. And foods with strong smells can trigger nausea when you are not feeling well.