What to eat—and not eat—when you’re sick

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published September 16, 2019

Key Takeaways

The beautiful changing leaves and falling temperatures may herald the beginning of fall, but they also herald the beginning of conditions that viruses love. Colds and other illnesses are more prevalent during the fall and winter months because viruses thrive when temperatures range from 50° F to 30° F. And the flu virus has a special predilection for cold and dry weather, when it replicates and spreads most effectively.

With this in mind, it’s best to be prepared. Here are some of the best foods to eat when you’re sick:

Chicken soup. Soups that are broth-based, including—and especially—chicken soup, are traditional fare for those who are ill. In fact, as long ago as the 12th century, physicians were recommending chicken soup for those who were ill. Since then, researchers have shown that the cornerstones of chicken soup’s benefits are its soothing and anti-inflammatory properties.

The secret ingredient in chicken soup may be cysteine, an amino acid found in chicken that helps thin mucus in the lungs. Couple this with the hot, steamy broth that helps moisten nasal passages, prevent dehydration, and fight inflammation—especially in the throat—and it’s no wonder that chicken soup has been a go-to for people who are sick for literally centuries.

In addition, researchers have shown that chicken soup significantly inhibits neutrophil migration to sites of infection or inflammation in patients with symptomatic upper respiratory tract infection. They also discovered that all of the ingredients in a traditional chicken soup (think vegetables, chicken, broth, etc)—individually exhibited this inhibitory capability.

Citrus fruits. Vitamin C may reduce the length and/or severity of colds, according to some studies. Eating citrus fruits that are high in vitamin C, therefore, is probably a good idea. Plus, the flavonoids found in oranges, lemons, grapefruits, and limes may give the immune system a boost, reduce inflammation, and help speed your recovery.

Popsicles. Although it seems counterintuitive, popsicles are a great choice when you are ill, and especially when your kids are ill. Proper hydration during illnesses, especially colds and respiratory infections, can help your body thin mucus and reduce congestion. In addition to being delicious, these icy treats can help soothe a sore throat. The healthiest choices include popsicles that are made of 100% whole fruit or those you’ve made at home with whole fruits. This way, you stay hydrated and get extra vitamin C and flavonoids to boot.

Garlic. This small member of the lily family—like onions, shallots, and leeks—is perhaps one of the most important ingredients in culinary preparation. Garlic has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries, and boasts a trifecta of therapeutic action: antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal. It has also been shown to stimulate the immune system. In one study, researchers have found that taking garlic reduced the number of sick days by about 70% compared with not taking it.

Furthermore, people who took a garlic supplement were also sick less often than those who didn’t, and recovered a mean of 3.5 days faster, according to the results of another study. Finally, supplements of aged garlic extract were shown to not only enhance immune function, but decrease the severity of colds and the flu. Add garlic to chicken soup or a broth when you’re sick, and you will reap two-fold the benefits.

Bananas. Mild and sweet in flavor, bananas are easy to incorporate into your diet when you are sick, and especially helpful for gastrointestinal illnesses like norovirus. They contain many nutrients and several antioxidants, as well as soluble fiber, which can help relieve diarrhea. With very little protein and almost no fat, bananas provide 9% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of potassium, 33% RDA of vitamin B6, 11% RDA of vitamin C, and 14% RDA of manganese.

And on the flip side, here are some of the worst foods to eat when you’re sick:

Fatty foods. Because foods that are high in fat—like burgers and fries—are more difficult to digest than carbohydrates. Avoid them when you’re ill, especially if it’s with norovirus.

Dairy. For years, dairy foods were believed to promote mucus production; however, researchers have now found that this may simply be due to a placebo effect. Nevertheless, dairy foods—especially milk—can cause us to feel like we have thicker mucus. Just to be on the safe side, skip the milk and dairy products.

Sweets. Sugar has been implicated in suppressing the immune system and causing inflammation. Skip foods that are high in sugar—like doughnuts, pastries, and even many cereals—while you are convalescing with any illness.

Finally, the jury seems to be out on whether we should eat spicy foods when we are ill. Some camps claim that spicy foods are natural decongestants. Spicy offerings like wasabi, horseradish, or jalapeno peppers could help relieve congestion—a claim backed by several clinical trials. But, spicy foods are also notoriously hard on the stomach and can cause pain and gastrointestinal discomfort—the last things you need when you are already sick. And, if it’s norovirus that has you in its clutches, absolutely skip the spicy foods.

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