Ugh, the flu. Who among us doesn’t dread those cold winter months when every cough from a child or co-worker has us covering our faces and reaching for the hand sanitizer? The flu passes easily from person to person and comes with painful symptoms including headache, chills, fever, body aches, cough, and runny nose.
Nausea and vomiting may or may not be part of the flu, and honestly, you might not feel like eating much anyway. But the old advice to “starve a fever” is not accurate – it’s still important to get ample nutrition while you have the flu to give your body the necessary strength to fight off the virus. Some foods are great for this, but others may actually make symptoms worse and extend the length of your illness. To bounce back more quickly this year, follow our tips for eating with the flu.
Never the healthiest of choices, eating a diet high in sugar is especially problematic during the flu because it causes inflammation. The last thing you need in already congested sinus passages is more inflammation. It will make it that much harder to expel mucus, which is the type of warm and moist environment that the flu virus loves. Inflammation can also weaken the body’s infection-killing white blood cells. So even though ginger ale is a traditional remedy for a queasy stomach, it’s best to stick to unsweetened ginger tea while you are ill.
The idea that milk and other dairy products cause your body to produce more mucus is actually an old wives tale, but it is true that for some people, dairy can thicken mucus and make it stay around longer. If you notice that dairy makes you feel more congested, it’s wise to avoid it. But if not, there can actually be some benefit to consuming things like milk and yogurt when you’re sick. They both contain protein and vitamin D that can help your body fight infection. Yogurt has probiotics that can help to balance gut bacteria, too.
Protein is important to keeping up your strength while fighting the flu, and meat has a lot of it. However, it also contains a lot of fat, which is more difficult to digest. Some experts suggest that animal fats hold back your body’s ability to expel the germs that cause flu and therefore lengthen the time during which you experience symptoms. It’s better to get your protein from eggs and plant-based protein sources like lentils, beans, nuts, edamame, and wild rice. Chickpeas are also high in protein, so a bit of hummus on slice of whole grain toast can be a great flu-friendly snack.
Most people with an upset stomach naturally want to avoid spicy and rich foods, sticking instead to a bland diet of rice and toast. The downside of this strategy is that these refined carbohydrates break down to sugar in the body really quickly, leading to a spike in blood glucose and feeling hungry again in a short time. Simple carbohydrates are also associated with inflammation, which you want to avoid at all costs. It’s actually better to choose the whole grain versions of those things you may gravitate toward when you’re ill – whole grain toast instead of white, and wild or brown rice instead of white. You will feel fuller longer and give your body crucial nutrients that are often stripped out of refined grains.
Everyone knows to drink a lot of water when they’re sick. Dehydration is one of the worst side effects of the flu because it comes with a host of symptoms and complications all on its own. Sweating due to fever, as well as repeated vomiting, can cause dehydration very quickly. So not only do you need to take in extra water, you are better off also avoiding diuretics like caffeine, which may cause you to urinate more. The idea that caffeine causes dehydration has been debunked by scientists, but it is most definitely a stimulant, and your body needs rest when it’s ill.
A good hot toddy may feel nice in your throat and kill the flu pain for awhile, but it will come back threefold in the form of increased nausea and dehydration. When you get dehydrated, mucus in the nose, throat, and lungs can dry up, clogging sinus and respiratory passages. It’s important to be able to get that stuff out, as miserable as a runny nose can be. Alcohol may also make you more prone to lung infections over time. So don’t risk adding a hangover and a secondary infection to the flu. Ride it out with some comforting chicken soup instead.
Many of us have little tips and tricks that we think help to minimize the risk of getting sick, or shorten the duration of symptoms when we do. A common theme is that certain supplements make a difference, especially Echinacea and zinc. However, there isn’t much in the way of evidence to support the idea that either of those can help much in terms of attacking cold or flu viruses. Unless your doctor recommends them, your best bet is good old vitamin C, found in high doses in fruits like strawberry, kiwi, and mango.
No surprise, but greasy foods like chips, French fries, fast food meals, and pizza contain lots of trans fats and/or vegetable oils. These cause serious bodily inflammation and suppress the immune system to boot. Greasy food is also really hard to digest, and can add to feelings of nausea. When you get to the point where you feel like you need a real, solid meal, stick to lean proteins like turkey and eggs to feel full without triggering nausea.
Every year, up to 1/5 of the global population succumbs to the flu at some point. When you are one of the unlucky ones, it’s important to care for yourself in a way that minimizes the painful symptoms. Lots of rest will always be key because your body just needs time to win the fight. Proper nutrition can help to shorten the duration of the virus, and by following the dietary guidelines we’ve suggested, you’ll be up and ready to enjoy a cocktail or slice of pizza with friends again sooner rather than later. Now go back to bed; the dishes can wait until you feel better!