What to Eat When You’re Sick (And What to Avoid)

by Shavonne Morrison, MS, RD, LD

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Here’s a list of the best foods to eat when you’re sick for a speedy recovery, as well as the foods you should avoid.

Many times when you’re sick, the last thing you want to think about is food. After all, coughing, sneezing, headaches, loss of appetite, and more can make eating unappealing. However, the way you nourish yourself when you’re under the weather can really make a difference.

What to Eat When You’re Sick

The next time you feel under the weather, look to this list of the best foods to eat when you’re sick.

1. Water + Fluids

Fever, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting can lead to a significant loss of fluids and dehydration. Drinking plenty of water will help keep your body hydrated and can prevent the fatigue that often results from dehydration as well.

Try to drink at least half your body weight in ounces of water, plus an extra glass if you’re vomiting. This will ensure you’re replenishing lost fluids.

Woman making homemade chicken soup, one of the best foods to eat when you're sick

2. Soups + Broths

It turns out that mom bringing you a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup is spot on.

An oft-cited study from the late-80s supports drinking hot fluids, which states that they can “increase nasal mucus velocity … through the nasal inhalation of water vapor.” That’s a fancy way of saying they can make mucus leave your nasal passages faster, which equals less congestion.

In addition to offering comfort, soups and broths are easy to digest and count toward your fluid intake. Check the label on canned or boxed soups and broths and aim for low-sodium options.

3. Herbal Teas

Similar to hot soups and broths, hot teas can help ease congestion. Calming teas such as chamomile can be especially soothing and may help promote rest, which will aid in the healing process as well.

Many herbal teas also contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may support the body as the immune system works to overcome illness. Plus, tea also counts toward fluid intake to help keep you hydrated.

4. Honey

In addition to being a pantry staple, honey has antimicrobial properties.

Coughing can cause your throat to become irritated and inflamed, and honey can help soothe it from being sore, itchy, or dry. Further, a 2011 study shows that honey helps reduce the frequency and severity of coughs.

Additionally, Manuka honey is often used in alternative medicine for wounds because of its ability to help prevent infection.

Consider adding honey to a hot beverage such as tea, which can help manage these symptoms while you wait for the illness to run its course.

Man drinking ginger tea with honey in bed, which has three of the best foods to eat when sick

5. Ginger

Ginger is one of the best foods to eat when you’re sick thanks to its antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s been used for hundreds of years to treat ailments.

According to one study, ginger significantly help prevent upper respiratory illnesses.

It’s also a common home remedy for nausea and upset stomach, including in the form of ginger ale. Additionally, ginger teas and lozenges help via a similar mechanism.

Aside from enjoying ginger tea, try adding raw ginger root to smoothies, soups, or broth. Use a zester to easily incorporate it!

6. Smoothies

Hot foods are sure to help decongest and provide comfort, but smoothies are an excellent way to provide nutrition if your appetite is low. Drinking a balanced smoothie can provide your body with adequate amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrates to keep you energized while sick.

Smoothies can also help you cool down if you experience the ups and downs of a fever. While the smoothie cannot treat or directly lower the fever, it may make you more comfortable while providing vitamins and minerals that support your immune system in an easily digestible form.

Especially with greens added, a cool, blended beverage can provide fiber to help with fullness and easier digestion. Adding protein will help keep you full longer, and fresh or frozen fruit will provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits.

Toast in toaster as part of the BRAT Diet

7. The BRAT Diet

Consisting of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, the BRAT diet is commonly recommended for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or upset stomach. These foods are bland enough to avoid aggravating your stomach, so they’ll be easier to keep down.

The fiber in them will also help to add bulk to stool, which may help normalize bowel movements.

The simple foods in the BRAT diet may be a good option to ensure you’re getting enough calories to fuel your body during illness. As symptoms improve, you can add other foods back in as you can tolerate them.

Foods to Avoid When Sick

Now that you know what to eat when you’re sick, what foods are best to stay away from?

In general, the main foods to avoid when sick include:

  • fried foods
  • spicy foods
  • sugary items

Though tasty, these foods won’t provide your body with as many nutrients as healthier options that your body needs, especially when it’s battling illness.

Further, avoid consuming “empty calories.” These are foods that are high in calories but offer little to no nutritional benefit due to a lack of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other key nutrients.

Lastly, avoid caffeine and alcohol when you’re sick. These may further dehydrate you or exacerbate your symptoms, making it harder for your body to fight the illness well. Such stimulants can also prevent you from getting restful sleep, which is crucial for healing.

Sick couple on couch with dirty tissues

One Caveat

All said, the right foods (and supplements!) can give your body energy and nutrients it needs to fight off illness more effectively.

However, it’s just one of the many necessary tactics to get over colds, fevers, or the flu, and shouldn’t be used in lieu of any medications prescribed by your doctor.

In short, alongside medical treatments, following a healthy diet during periods of illness can be powerful for healing.

The Bottom Line

Overall, the research remains mixed regarding what to eat when you’re sick to help shorten the duration of illnesses like colds, fevers, and the flu. However, eating a nutrient-dense diet can help keep your body strong while the illness runs its course.

In particular, hot soups and beverages may help clear congestion while providing sufficient fluids to help you stay hydrated. Incorporating herbal teas, ginger, and honey can provide medicinal benefits to support the immune system.

Staying hydrated is key, but avoid caffeine and alcohol to ensure you get quality sleep.


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