What to Eat When Sick

Hello everyone! The discussion on the table today is what to eat when you are sick. Even though I typically focus on mindful eating for prediabetes and metabolic syndrome, it is that time of year when respiratory illness, including cold, flu, and COVID, as well as gastrointestinal issues such as gastroenteritis (stomach flu) and other stomach bugs, are more prevalent. Whether it is from shifts in the weather, eating something that did not settle right, or hanging around someone sick, being ill is not fun. Virtually everyone has been sick at some point, and I doubt anyone wants to relive that experience. However, nutrition can be an essential part of a quick recovery when illness occurs.


General Tips

Stay Hydrated

Maintaining hydration is essential, whether it is the cold, flu, COVID, or Gastroenteritis. Clear liquids, including water, broths, clear sodas, and gelatin are usually well tolerated and help replenish fluids lost during illness.

Ginger tea or diet ginger ale can help calm the stomach. Just check the ingredients list to make sure they actually contain ginger. A surprising amount of popular ginger ale brands do not.

In cases with multiple episodes of vomiting or diarrhea, oral rehydration supplements can help replace essential electrolytes, including sodium and potassium.

If you have congestion or a sore throat, teas with mint, lemongrass, and chamomile can be soothing. In addition, they can help replenish hydration.

Prioritize Nutrient-Rich Foods

Being mindful of nutrition helps optimize your immune function during illness.

As you recover, don’t forget to incorporate plenty of nutrient-dense foods, including fruits, vegetables, and protein

Try Small, Frequent Meals

You may better tolerate eating small meals more often than eating larger meals less often.

This eating pattern also gives you more opportunities to eat nutritious foods and beverages.


Nausea and Vomiting

Image of woman gripping her stomach due to stomach pain.

It can be challenging to eat due to a lack of appetite or not being able to keep things down due to nausea and vomiting. Please remember that if you are experiencing nausea and vomiting, it is usually best to rest the gastrointestinal tract.

Once vomiting has subsided, you can begin sucking on small amounts of ice chips. If you do well with those, start with small amounts of clear liquids such as apple juice, broth, clear carbonated beverages, and gelatin.

When you have not vomited for at least 8 hours, you can reintroduce solid foods such as the ones listed below for Gastroenteritis. Try small, frequent meals and snacks, and avoid larger meals until your symptoms resolve. [1]

Foods to Choose with Gastroenteritis

The BRAT Diet

The BRAT Diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast) is often a good fit for people dealing with illnesses that affect the GI tract and cause Gastroenteritis.

Due the bland nature of bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast, they are usually easy for the body to digest.

It is best not to eat bananas that are too ripe (with several brown spots on the peel) because the higher sugar levels may cause more gastric distress if you are dealing with nausea or diarrhea. A plain yellow banana that is just ripe enough to enjoy is ideal.

Although these foods are bland and easily digestible, eating only these foods when recovering from a GI bug is unnecessary. [2] You may also tolerate similar foods to those listed below, giving you access to a wider array of nutrients.

Plain Crackers, Pretzels, Boiled Potatoes, and Oatmeal

These foods are easily digestible and good sources of carbohydrates and nutrients. They provide energy without further aggravating an irritated GI tract.

Oatmeal contains soluble fiber. When it runs through your gut, it attracts water and becomes a gel. This phenomenon means it can work as a bulking agent if you’ve struggled with liquid or runny stools.

Cooked Vegetables

Plain or lightly salted steamed carrots, zucchini, and spinach tend to be gentle on the stomach and are a good source of vitamins.

When you are dealing with Gastroenteritis, it is best to stay away from raw vegetables.

When you cook vegetables, they partially break down and become much easier for your body to digest.

Eggs, Baked Chicken or Turkey, Broth, and Low-Fat Greek Yogurt

These foods provide protein to support further recovery from illness.

You may find, at first, that you better tolerate egg whites rather than whole eggs due to the fat content of yolks.

Avoid adding extra fat or spices when preparing eggs or chicken.

A basic chicken or turkey noodle broth-based soup can also be a good choice.

Low-fat yogurt with live cultures can help restore beneficial bacteria to the gut. Opt for Greek yogurt to get more protein.

Foods to Avoid with Gastroenteritis

Greasy Fried or Fatty Foods

These can be harder to digest and can make gastrointestinal symptoms worse.

Dairy Products

Although you may tolerate yogurt once vomiting subsides, other dairy products may irritate the stomach.

Spicy Foods

The strong flavors and aromas from spices can make digestive symptoms worse.

Choosing plain, bland foods is usually the best plan for the first 24-48 hours after the vomiting resolves.


Respiratory Illnesses

Image of man laying in bed holding tissues to his nose. Medicine bottles are also on the nightstand beside him.

Illnesses such as colds, flu, and COVID-19 bring symptoms that can make you feel miserable while zapping your energy.

Nutrition that supports the immune system can help you bounce back quicker and reduce your risk of potentially serious complications such as pneumonia.

Generally, consuming well-balanced meals and snacks that include protein, vegetables, fruits, grains, and dairy is important. You may find the following foods to be especially helpful to your recovery.

Foods to Choose with Cold/Flu Symptoms

Citrus Fruits

Oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, and tangerines are all good sources of vitamin C, which helps boost the immune system. [3]

Chicken Soup

This comfort food can help soothe a sore throat while providing hydration. Some research has also suggested that it has mild anti-inflammatory effects and possible medicinal properties. [4]

Garlic, Turmeric, Ginger, Onions, Saffron, and Fish Oil

All these foods have anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to help reduce the duration of viral respiratory infections. [5]

Honey

Honey mixed in hot tea has long been used to soothe sore throats. Scientific studies have discovered it also has antimicrobial properties that help fight infections. [6]

Foods to Limit with Cold/Flu Symptoms

Concentrated Sweets

Infections promote inflammation. Likewise, sugar has been associated with increased inflammation. [7]

Limiting your intake of sugary foods and beverages, especially during illness, can promote a better immune response.

Alcohol

As mentioned earlier, adequate hydration is vital for recovering from GI and respiratory illnesses.

As mentioned earlier, adequate hydration is vital for recovering from GI and respiratory illnesses.

Ultra-Processed Foods

Ultra-processed foods (UPF) have been altered from their natural state by adding fats, starches, sugar, stabilizers, artificial flavors and colors, etc.

Consumption of UPF has also been associated with promoting inflammation in the body. [9]


Here is a handout that you can download and print to remind you of the recommended foods to eat when sick.

Conclusion

When you are sick, prioritize your hydration and rest. Your body is working overtime to mount its fight against illness.

If you have metabolic syndrome or prediabetes, you likely already have inflammation in the body. This may make it harder to overcome infections.

Being mindful of guidelines to manage symptoms while consuming the most optimal nutrition possible can give you an edge in that fight.

Please note that if your illness lasts more than a week or symptoms worsen, meet with a licensed and trusted healthcare provider as soon as possible for further treatment.

I hope that you found this list helpful. If you are currently ill, I want to wish you a quick recovery!


Sources

  1. Nausea and Vomiting Nutrition Therapy. – Nutrition Care Manual.
    (n.d.). https://www.nutritioncaremanual.org/
  2. Bland diet – statpearls – NCBI bookshelf. (n.d.). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538142/
    3.Bucher, A., & White, N. (2016). Vitamin C in the prevention and treatment of the Common Cold. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 10(3), 181–183. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827616629092
    4.Rennard BO;Ertl RF;Gossman GL;Robbins RA;Rennard SI; (n.d.). Chicken soup inhibits neutrophil chemotaxis in vitro. Chest. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11035691/
  3. D; V. F. (n.d.). Can an anti-inflammatory diet be effective in preventing or treating viral respiratory diseases? A systematic narrative review. Clinical nutrition ESPEN.
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34024569/
  4. Abuelgasim, H., Albury, C., & Lee, J. (2021, April 1). Effectiveness of honey for symptomatic relief in upper respiratory tract infections: A systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine.
    https://ebm.bmj.com/content/26/2/57
  5. (PDF) Excessive intake of sugar: An accomplice of inflammation. (n.d.).
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/363150610_Excessive_intake_of_sugar_An_accomplice_of_inflammation
  6. Jewell, T. (2019, May 23). Does alcohol dehydrate you? facts, research, and tips. Healthline.
    https://www.healthline.com/health/does-alcohol-dehydrate-you
  7. Asensi, M. (2023, Mar 22) Low-Grade Inflammation and Ultra Processed Foods Consumption: A Review.
    Nutrients. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36986276/
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