What You Should (and Shouldn't) Eat When You're Sick


The time will inevitably come when your immune system fails at its ONE JOB, and you'll get sick. Out come the pillows and the Netflix, but as you ride out the illness, you also need to eat.

You may know that trying to kill those germs with alcohol isn’t the smartest move (it’s not!?), but what should you consume? Is chicken soup really good for you, or is that something your mom told you to shut you up? We asked Lingxia Sun, a clinical dietitian at Johns Hopkins Hospital, what the best eating strategy is for anyone who’s got a cold, the flu, or is just generally feeling lousy.

Above all else, make sure you’re eating

“The most important thing is that you still eat something,” Sun advises. “Some people don’t have an appetite when they’re sick, so they don’t eat anything. Food is how our bodies function, and you need all the food you normally eat because your body is fighting the disease.”

That said, some foods are going to help you more while others can even make you feel worse. With your typical cold/flu situation, you have an infection that might be making you feverish, achy, nauseous, and stuffy, depending on how your body does things. So your goal is to eat foods that relieve some of those symptoms, and to avoid foods that aggravate them. Logical enough, right?

Flickr/Tony Hisgett

Eat: Ginger

A few foods provide specific benefits to reduce your symptoms. For nausea, ginger has been shown to provide relief, so add ginger to teas or a mild stir fry to calm your stomach.

Eat: Bananas

Bananas are easy to digest when you have an upset stomach, and they provide potassium, an essential electrolyte that helps maintain water balance for optimal cell function.

Flickr/Pankaj Kaushal

Eat: Chicken soup

Congestion can be relieved with hot tea and soup, and a lab study has even shown that chicken soup officially has potential for helping with colds! Guess Mom was right, after all.

Eat: Garlic

Garlic has antiviral and antibacterial properties, though research on whether it’s helpful for colds is inconclusive. Still, if your stomach can tolerate it, garlic can’t hurt, especially if you add it to that ginger-y stir-fry you made.

While none of these foods will magically cure you, they can make your sick days a little less miserable. The bottom line is that you should be eating something and focusing on healthy foods, though that can be difficult when there are close calls, like the next two...


It depends: Dairy

Most people have heard that dairy products produce phlegm, so scientists decided to test whether it was hearsay or actually true. The experimental design involved some appealing lab work: weighing the used tissues of 51 study volunteers! The team found no evidence that milk makes you more congested. Still, it may not be the best choice for everyone. “Some people become lactose sensitive when they’re sick,” explains Sun. “But the problem is mostly from milk; yogurt is usually OK. And it’s not necessarily that you have to avoid it, it’s individual.”

It depends: Fruit juice

With fruit juice, it depends on what you drink. Juice with no added sugar -- or better yet, freshly prepared from a juicer -- is great because it’s hydrating and provides much-needed vitamins. If you’re reaching for the processed, sweetened juices, those are the empty calories that you want to avoid.

Of course, there are some items you should abstain from completely:

matthew albanese/Thrillist

Avoid: Booze

You’re definitely better off without are alcohol. It turns out that alcohol doesn’t kill the germs in your body; in fact, it reduces your immune system’s ability to respond to an infection. This means it’s easier to get sick in the first place, and you may stay sick longer.

Avoid: Grease

Greasy foods can cause or worsen nausea, which makes it harder to eat the foods that are actually good for you. Chicken noodle soup over chicken wings, always.


Avoid: Sweets

In general, the empty calories you get from sweets, and sugary beverages like sweetened fruit juice and soda, aren’t your best bet, even if they aren’t making you feel worse per se. “If your appetite isn’t great, the little bit you eat should be nutrient rich,” recommends Sun. Rather than eating junk to drown yourself in self-pity, prioritize eating the foods that will help your body get back on track.

As Sun points out, “There’s no particular diet for a cold or a flu. You need enough protein for your body to heal, and fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Our immunity is how our body functions -- all your organs and body systems work together to be able to fight the disease. Nutrition provides resources and energy to all the systems in your body, enabling them to do this.”

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Marina Komarovsky is a freelance writer for Thrillist, and she’s hoping scientists will discover that hot sake cures colds, but for now she’s sticking to the ginger tea. For more on food for your health, follow her tweets: @marikomarovsky.