This article helps you answer the question what should i eat when sick. There are many reasons you might feel sick, from having the flu to a simple cold or other illness. The symptoms of these illnesses can range widely and make everyday tasks seem strenuous. Eating can be difficult when you’re not feeling well. However, it’s important to be aware of what types of foods to avoid and what foods might be beneficial to your health during your time of sickness.
Foods to eat when sick
Dunn says that when you think about what foods to eat when you’re sick, think about it as three basic categories:
- What to eat or drink when you’re dehydrated (or to avoid becoming dehydrated).
- What to eat or drink when your gut is sick (like diarrhea).
- What to eat or drink when you feel nauseous (or have a stomachache).
What to eat when you’re dehydrated
When you’re sick and don’t feel well, you might not have an appetite, or you might feel like you can’t keep anything down. But if you’re not eating or drinking, dehydration can quickly set in.
“Oftentimes when we’re sick and don’t feel good, dehydration is a big part of it,” explains Dunn. “It might be because you’re throwing up or running to the bathroom every five minutes. Or you might feel so sick that you just don’t have an appetite.”
But dehydration is one of the biggest reasons why people end up in the emergency room when they’re sick.
You might be so dehydrated that you can’t walk, or you pass out and hit your head. Moderate to severe dehydration needs quick medical attention. If left untreated, dehydration can cause urinary or kidney problems, seizures and can even be life-threatening.
Here’s what to eat and drink when you’re dehydrated or to avoid becoming dehydrated:
- Beverages. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot, cold or room temperature – any type of liquid is going to help combat dehydration. Just try to sip liquids steadily throughout the day. Aim for water, electrolyte or sports drinks, coffee, teas, juice, soda or carbonated water.
- Soup. There’s a reason that chicken noodle soup is most people’s go-to when they don’t feel well. It’s typically more filling than plain water since it contains more calories, protein and vitamins. It’s also a good source of liquids and electrolytes. But if this traditional soup doesn’t sound appealing to you, try out other types of soups and broths for additional calories and hydration. Plus, soup in general can act as a natural decongestion when served hot.
- Foods that are mainly liquid. If you’re having a hard time drinking fluid, aim for foods that are mainly liquid, but served cold or frozen. Try foods like ice cream, popsicles, Jell-O and pudding.
- Fruit. Fresh fruit contains many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs – even when you’re not sick! Eating fruit when you’re feeling under the weather can provide a nutrient boost, as well as hydration. Aim for juicy fruits that are made up of mostly water, like melons, berries, oranges and grapes.
What to eat when your gut is sick
Diarrhea is when food is moving too quickly through your body. You’ll want to focus on eating foods that can slow that process down, which means choosing foods that contain soluble fiber. This type of fiber acts as a thickening agent and adds form to the stool to help slow it down.
Dunn says that when your gut is sick, you’ll want to avoid or limit caffeine and sugar alcohols. Caffeine can overstimulate your digestive system and make diarrhea worse. Sugar alcohols don’t get absorbed in the gut and instead hang out in your large intestine, which can lead to bloating, stomach pain and more diarrhea.
Here’s what to eat and drink when your gut is sick:
- Anything on the BRAT diet. Mom was right. Eat a diet that follows the acronym, BRAT – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Most people suffering from diarrhea can tolerate a few of these simple foods.
- Bland foods. Although not super exciting, very plain and bland foods can help ease symptoms. Try pasta, dry cereals, oatmeal, bread and crackers. But bland doesn’t mean you can’t add protein or veggies into the mix if you’re feeling up for it! Try eating rice and baked chicken breast or cheese and crackers.
- Some fruits and vegetables. Try to add in boiled or baked potatoes, winter squash, baked apples, applesauce or bananas.
Colds and flu
Herbal teas provide hydration and breathing in their steam can help to clear mucus from the sinuses.
A blocked nose, a cough, and a sore throat are common symptoms of colds and flu. The following foods can help to ease congestion and inflammation and boost the immune system.
1. Herbal teas
When experiencing cold and flu symptoms, it is important to stay hydrated. Herbal teas are refreshing and breathing in their steam can help to clear mucus from the sinuses.
Adding ground turmeric to a cup of hot water may help to relieve a sore throat. Research suggests that turmeric has both anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Tea leaves are abundant in natural plant compounds, such as polyphenols, flavonoids, and catechins. These stimulate the immune system. Catechins, in particular, may protect against certain types of influenza virus.
Some people recommend drinking Echinacea tea to shorten the duration of cold and flu symptoms. However, this effect has yet to be proven by scientific research.
A sore throat can be caused by a bacterial infection. Honey is rich in antimicrobials that help to clear these types of infection.
Honey may also be effective in treating children’s coughs, though it should not be given to infants under 12 months of age.
A review published in 2018 compared honey with common over-the-counter children’s cough remedies, a placebo, and no treatment.
The authors found that honey appeared to be more effective than diphenhydramine and salbutamol, which are drugs often used in cough medicines. Honey also produced similar results as dextromethorphan, another common ingredient.
The results were limited, however, as most studies in the review only looked at 1-night acute coughs.
3. Citrus fruits and berries
Citrus fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and grapefruits, contain high levels of flavonoids and vitamin C. These decrease inflammation and boost immunity, which may help to fight a fever.
Some studies suggest that a flavonoid called quercetin, which is also found in berries, may help to treat rhinovirus infections. This virus is responsible for the majority of common colds.
Frozen, slushy fruit juices can often help to soothe a sore throat.
Foods to avoid
Dairy is believed by many to increase mucus production, although there is little scientific evidence to support this. Dairy may make mucus thicker, however, which can worsen sinus congestion.
Caffeine can cause dehydration, which makes congestion worse. However, some caffeinated drinks, such as tea and coffee, contain immune-boosting antioxidants, and they may be helpful in moderation.
Alcohol can dehydrate and trigger an inflammatory response, which may aggravate cold and flu symptoms.
Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
Ginger may help to reduce the effects of nausea and vomiting.
When someone has one or more of these symptoms, the key is to eat foods that settle the stomach. Doing so should help people to regain their appetite.
Research suggests that ginger could help to reduce the effects of nausea and vomiting, although more studies are required to confirm these findings.
A person can make ginger tea by adding 1–2 teaspoons of fresh ginger to a cup of hot water. Steep the ginger for 5 minutes before straining the mixture and sweetening it with a little honey.
Crystallized ginger should be eaten in moderation, due to its high sugar content.
Avoid fizzy ginger ale, as this can further irritate an upset stomach.
2. BRAT foods
BRAT stands for: bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are bland and gentle on the stomach.
The diet is rich in starch and contains little fiber, which can have a binding effect on loose stools and speed up recovery from diarrhea.
Other bland foods that can be added to a BRAT diet include:
- boiled potatoes
A person should start slowly, sipping water regularly for the first few hours, before gently introducing other liquids, such as apple juice or broth.
If the stomach remains settled, it may be safe to try more solid BRAT foods.
Those sensitive to gluten should make sure to choose gluten-free options.
It will usually be safe to return to a more regular diet after around 48 hours.
An upset stomach occurs when the stomach lining becomes inflamed. Compounds called tannins that are present in coconut water may help to reduce this inflammation.
Coconut water is also high in minerals such as sodium and potassium. They can help the body to rehydrate quickly after diarrhea or vomiting.
One study found that coconut water may provide the same level of hydration as a sports drink. It is also more healthful, containing no added sugar. However, it is worth noting that this study only included 12 participants.
Foods to avoid
Greasy foods contain high levels of fats, which are difficult to digest and can irritate the stomach, worsening nausea.
Chilies contain capsaicin, a chemical that can irritate the lining of the stomach, causing pain and discomfort.
Caffeine acts as a muscle stimulant that can cause stomach cramps and increase bowel movements.
Dairy products contain a sugar called lactose that can be difficult to digest after diarrhea, causing bloating and nausea.
Artificial sweeteners can have a laxative effect.
Best Foods to Eat When Sick
When you have no appetite or taste is altered, turn to these best foods to eat when sick to provide nutrients needed for the body to fight illness. Depending on symptoms and severity, certain food or drinks may be more appropriate than others.
Read on for why these 7 foods (and drinks) each can provide benefits when fighting a sickness.
1. Broth Soups
Bone broth seems to have become a frontrunner in the health craze. Believed to be able to revive the dead and considered a great healer in South American cultures, it is a staple of the LA Lakers official team diet for rehydration. Bone broth is typically rich in gelatin, which may be helpful for GI tract health, and glucosamine – which may offer some benefit to joints.
Bone broth also contains copious amounts of collagen, which contains the building blocks for synthesizing proteins that help keep your skin tight and youthful in appearance. Bone broth also contains a good amount of glycine, which may help some people sleep better – a must when you are sick and trying to get back on your feet.
Not to mention broth soups help you stay hydrated, a very important feature when you are unwell. It is possible that these are the mystery ingredients that make chicken soup the perfect remedy for just about any illness, and one of the best foods to eat when you are sick. In fact, some research suggests chicken soup may contain a number of substances with beneficial medicinal activity.
Do not be fooled, though. The broth soup that is found in canned chicken noodle soup at your local grocery store is likely not the same thing. To make your own quick and easy bone broth, use the ‘leftovers’ from a whole rotisserie chicken carcass.
Place in boiling water, with skin, bones, cartilage, all of it – and add some herbs like fresh thyme and sage, and simmer for about 32 hours. Add some salt and pepper at the end for additional flavor. Pour off the broth over a strainer to remove bits and particles. This will keep in the fridge for about 3 days, and in the freezer for about 6 weeks.
2. Hot Tea and Hot Toddies
Whether you choose decaf or caffeinated tea – hot teas made from the leaves of green, black, white or oolong tea leaves can be your best ally. These teas contain a variety of antioxidants that can help fight free radicals that arise when your body is fighting off a virus or bacteria.
Warm tea with honey can be very soothing for a sore throat. Add a cinnamon stick, lemon slice, and a dollop of whiskey or bourbon to make a ‘hot toddy’. Highlanders hailing from Scotland have sworn by for their various ills as early as the beginning of the 19th century, you ken.
3. Spicy Foods
Think Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Latin foods next time you feel unwell with cold or respiratory congestion symptoms. These cuisines usually contain natural decongestants – even when you are not sick they can make your eyes water and your nose run.
Also specifically think wasabi, horseradish, cayenne, chili, habanero, jalapeno peppers, and red pepper flakes. These spices can help with clogged sinuses and a stuffy nose, though keep in mind you would not want to try these foods if you are having tummy troubles.
Spicy foods contain capsaicin, which may be helpful for pain relief. Try something spicy the next time you have a headache, it just might help. Spicy foods like salsa, buffalo sauce, hot sauce, creole seasoning, Caribbean jerk-style foods, and spicy curry can all top the list of foods to eat when you are sick with congestion, sore throat, or headache.
See below tips #6 and 7 for other reasons spicy foods can be one of the best foods to eat when sick!
4. Apple Cider Vinegar
An antifungal used to kill candida species with mouth gargle, apple cider vinegar is definitely one of the foods to eat when you are sick with a sore throat. Or, or if you have mouth sores that are caused by Candida albicans.
Do not swish this stuff straight, but rather dilute it with plenty of water.
Studies have shown that apple cider vinegar can also work better than nystatin, which is typically prescribed to treat microbial issues within the oral cavity. Gargling with apple cider vinegar when you have a sore throat can help reduce the microbial counts on the surface of your throat tissues.
Saltwater appears to have a similar benefit. Try gargling for at least 20 seconds.
A great number of studies have pointed to elderberry extract providing protection from the cold and flu, making it an important food to eat when you are sick or when you begin to feel sick.
A 2016 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial revealed that people who took elderberry extract and then traveled economy class on airplanes had fewer episodes of the upper respiratory symptoms as well as a shorter duration and decreased severity of cold symptoms.
Shorten your sickness, and pick up an extract of this dark, usually sweetened liquid. For best results, hold it under your tongue for a bit before swallowing.
Ginger has been used for centuries as a home remedy for relieving digestive, liver issues, colds, and sore throats. Research backs up the practice of turning to ginger when sick, as ginger has been shown to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant benefits.
Ginger is known for helping relieve nausea, but ginger can also help prevent colds, sore throat, and inflammation in the respiratory tract.
Fresh ginger can be added to stir fry dishes or soups, but ginger can also be steeped in hot water with lemon and honey for a comforting, hydrating ginger tea to sip on while sick.
Similar to ginger, garlic is another ancient home remedy used for many ailments and also a staple in most spicy food dishes. There are good reasons people have been turning to garlic for centuries to help prevent and help expedite certain illnesses.
Garlic is a good source of antioxidants and can even help stimulate the immune response in the body by helping to activate white blood cells, according to a 2015 review.
Worst foods to eat when you’re sick
Spicy and acidic foods
While spicy foods might be good for clearing nasal congestion, they can be rough on your stomach. This is thanks to a powerful ingredient called capsaicin, which can disrupt your digestive tract.
The same goes for citrus. The vitamin C may be beneficial for cold-like symptoms, but fruits like grapefruit, oranges, and lemons can also irritate your stomach lining and cause more pain and discomfort. Steer clear of both if you have an upset stomach.
If ever there was a time for comfort food, being sick in bed would be it, right? But a high sugar intake can contribute to inflammation and a lowered immune response. Even though fro yo sounds like a good idea, it’s best to skip it when you’re feeling under the weather.
Greasy foods and refined carbs
Pass on the burgers and fries. Greasy foods cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils contain artificial trans fats. These fats lower the HDL (“good”) cholesterol in your body, and they increase inflammatory markers — the last thing you need when you’re sick. [Mohsen M, et al. (2017). Inflammatory markers are positively associated with serumtrans-fatty acids in an adult American population.
Might as well ditch the bun, too. Studies have shown that refined carbohydrates (white breads, pastas, pancakes) cause a sharp insulin spike and create inflammation in the body.
The jury is still out on this one. Many people believe that drinking milk promotes mucus production in the lungs, but a 2019 study from Australia showed that may not be the case.
Even if your phlegm isn’t dining on dairy, the texture of milk combined with saliva can feel thick and uncomfortable in your mouth. If this bothers you or you have a known dairy allergy, avoid milk while you’re sick.
1. Dark chocolate
Dark chocolate contains an antioxidant called theobromine, which may help to boost the immune system by protecting the body’s cells from free radicals.
Free radicals are molecules that the body produces when it breaks down food or comes into contact with pollutants. Free radicals can damage the body’s cells and may contribute to disease.
Despite its potential benefits, dark chocolate is high in calories and saturated fat, so it is important to eat it in moderation.
Oranges are packed with vitamin C, an essential nutrient when you’re feeling under the weather. According to a review conducted by the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, at the Australian National University, vitamin C is helpful in preventing the common cold for people exposed to sickness-inducing environments, such as cold weather, and can help lower the duration and severity of a cold.
When you’re feeling sick, good ol’ H2O can be one of the most helpful drinks to sip. Staying hydrated can help loosen trapped mucus. Try drinking at least the recommended eight glasses of water a day to keep yourself fully hydrated since we tend to lose more fluids when we’re sick.
4. Greek yogurt
Greek yogurt is filled with sickness-fighting probiotics and is packed with more protein than regular yogurt. A meta-analysis published in the journal Korean Journal of Family Medicine found that probiotics can help to prevent and treat the common cold. The researchers discovered that people who ate probiotics daily had a lower risk of catching a cold than those who did not eat any probiotic-rich food.
Blueberries are filled with antioxidants that can help treat and prevent coughs and colds. According to research conducted by the University of Auckland, consuming flavonoids — a class of antioxidants found in blueberries — made adults 33 percent less likely to catch a cold than those who did not eat flavonoid-rich foods or supplements daily.
6. Ginseng tea
Ginseng tea is popular for more reasons than its delicious taste. Namely, the tea has been used as a treatment for upper respiratory tract infections (aka the common cold). A review published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal noted that ginseng has been shown to significantly reduce the symptoms of colds and influenza. However, the researchers noted that more research needs to be conducted to fully support ginseng’s immunity-boosting claims.
Tomatoes are also a great food to eat when you’re sick due to their high concentration of vitamin C. Just one medium tomato contains a little over 16 milligrams of vitamin C, which is a proven fuel to your body’s immune system.
In a German study published by Medizinische Monatsschrift fur Pharmazeuten, vitamin C was shown to be a vital part of the strength of the body’s phagocytes and t-cells, two major components of the immune system. The researchers also noted that a deficiency in this nutrient can lead to a weaker immune system and a lower resistance to certain pathogens that can lead to illness.
8. Wild salmon
Wild salmon is filled with zinc, a nutrient that has been proven to assist with reducing common cold symptoms. If you want your family, and especially your children, to avoid a cold this winter season, then you should be giving them zinc-rich foods.
The Journal of Family Practice published a study examining the effects of zinc on the common cold in children ages 1 to 10 years old. Researchers found that zinc, in comparison to a placebo, significantly reduced the severity and duration of symptoms when taken within 24 hours of the onset of cold symptoms. The researchers noted another trial involving children ages 6.5 to 10 years old proved zinc to also be a helpful component in preventing that cold. The children who took 15 mg of zinc daily for seven months were found to be significantly less likely to catch a cold during flu season in comparison to those in the control group.