5 Foods to Avoid when You're Sick (And 3 to Eat Instead)
Kick that cold to the curb.
It’s important to eat healthy when you’re well, but when you’re sick, certain foods can actually prolong illness.
“Foods that you would characterize as not the healthiest are certainly not gonna help you recover,” says Jennifer Williams, a research scientist at Abbott Laboratories who specializes in nutrition, diabetes, and hydration. “In fact, it’s gonna make you feel worse.”
Read on to see which foods you shouldn’t eat when you’ve got the cold or flu—and what to focus on instead.
Foods to avoid:
Does it come in a package? If so, leave it. Snack packs, chips, and prepackaged cookies are loaded with preservatives, artificial coloring, and artificial flavors. In moderation, that can be okay, but they’re the last thing you need when you’re sick. “These foods are completely devoid of the nutrients your body needs in order to heal from the flu,” Thacker says.
When you’re sick, your immune system needs no distractions. That’s why it’s important to stay away from sugar, which causes inflammation. “This is not helpful when you want your body’s energy to focus on your immune system working hard,” says Sarah Thacker, a holistic health coach and therapist based in New York City. If your immune system has to calm sugar-based inflammation, then it can’t focus on fighting the flu.
Sugar isn’t the only inflammatory food to avoid. Dairy can also trigger inflammation, as well as increase your body’s mucus production. More mucus will just make that nose runnier, and excessive postnasal drip is straight-up miserable.
People tout whiskey as the best medicine, but alcohol won’t help you recover anytime soon. Thacker notes that alcohol is inflammatory and that processing is taxes the body. “When you are sick you do not want your body to have to work on detoxifying your liver and bloodstream,” she says. “You want all of your body’s energy to be focused on healing, repairing, and preparing for a stronger immune system.” Alcohol can also interfere with sleep, which is vital to the recovery process.
Spicy food can work wonders for congestion, but if your nose is running, chances are you don’t want any more snot pouring out. Stick to bland dishes in the meantime; spices will just make your nose runnier and can aggravate your throat.
What to eat instead:
Whole fruits, vegetables, and nuts
Focusing on foods that are rich in nutrients gives your body what it needs to repair cells and maintain all its systems. “Foods with antioxidants are really going to help boost your immunity,” Williams says. Pretty much all fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C, while green leafy vegetables and nuts are rich in vitamin E. Cooked vegetables or pureed soups are easier to digest, but still contain the nutrients you need.
In fall and winter, there’s less sunshine, which means we get less vitamin D, and that affects our immunity. “Practically none of us get enough vitamin D,” Williams says. Vitamin D is difficult to consume naturally since it’s mostly found in fatty fish, but taking a vitamin D supplement will work just as well.
Another important nutrient that boosts recovery is zinc, which helps the immune system fight off bacteria and viruses. It’s also an electrolyte, which will help your body repair itself. Foods high in zinc include red meat, chicken, and legumes, as well as milk and yogurt (which, remember, increase mucus production, so don’t rely on dairy if you’ve got a runny nose).