What to Eat When You Have a Cold or Flu

The foods you eat can support your immune system, this article discusses what to eat when you have a cold or flu.

What to Eat When You Have a Cold or Flu photo

The common cold is a viral, upper respiratory infection. Symptoms include blocked or runny nose, sneezing, cough, sore throat, and pressure in the ears or face.

Seasonal flu, also a viral infection, tends to be worse than a cold and it can spread to the lower respiratory tract in severe cases. Whilst it shares some symptoms with the common cold, more characteristic symptoms of flu include fever, chills, sweats, muscle aches, weakness, headache, and chest discomfort.

You may have heard the phrase ‘feed a cold, starve a fever', but is this really true?

Not necessarily. The research available is not sufficient to support this advice. Furthermore, depriving yourself of food when you have a fever means your body may not have access to the energy it needs to fight off infection. Fever (increased temperature) is one way your body tries to kill harmful viruses and bacteria which are causing the infection. Having a fever increases metabolism (biochemical reactions in the body), which means more energy and nutrients are required to fuel these processes.

This does not mean you need to eat excessively. In fact, if you’re bunged up with a cold or have the flu, you might not have much of an appetite. Avoid skipping meals or try eating little and often if you cannot stomach a full meal.

What to eat to recover quickly from a cold or flu:

Consume vitamin-C rich foods:

Vitamin C supports the immune system and may help to reduce the duration of a cold.

Sources include:

  • Red pepper
  • Fresh parsley
  • Thyme
  • Kiwi
  • Citrus foods (lemons, oranges)
  • Strawberries
  • Broccoli
  • Tomatoes
  • Kale
  • Blueberries
  • Blackcurrants

Eat flavonoid-rich foods

Flavonoids are various chemicals found in certain plant foods. The following types have been shown to have antiviral properties and may be helpful to consume if you have a cold or flu to speed up your recovery.

Quercetin - cranberries, onions, shallots, capers, apples, blueberries, cherries, grapes, broccoli, tea.

Hesperetin - oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and tangerines.

These foods also contain antioxidants and help to reduce inflammation, particularly important if you have a severe chest infection. A good general rule is to incorporate a range of different coloured plant foods into your diet as this provides a variety of vitamins, minerals, and flavonoids.

Focus on meals that are soothing, nutrient-dense, and comforting

Foods such as soups, stews, and casseroles may be easier to eat and more soothing if you have a sore throat. Aim to include a mix of root and other vegetables and a source of protein (chicken, turkey, eggs, fish, tofu, or plant-based meat alternatives) with each meal, as immune cells are made from protein therefore it is important for the optimal function of the immune system.

Avoid consuming excessive sugar

It can be tempting to reach for sugary foods when feeling under the weather. However, eating too much refined sugar and simple carbohydrates from cakes, biscuits, sweets, and crisps may reduce vitamin C absorption. Instead, opt for more nutritious snacks such as dried fruit with nuts or some dark chocolate.

Hemilä, H., Chalker, E., 2013. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, [online]. Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8078152/> [Accessed 17 Oct. 2021].

Kluger M.J., 1986. Is fever beneficial? Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 59(2), pp. 89–95.

Malo, C., Wilson, J.X., 2000. Glucose Modulates Vitamin C Transport in Adult Human Small Intestinal Brush Border Membrane Vesicles. The Journal of Nutrition, 130(1), pp. 63–69.

Somerville, V., Braakhuis, A.J., Hopkins, W.G., 2016. Effect of Flavonoids on Upper Respiratory Tract Infections and Immune Function: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Advances in Nutrition, 7(3), pp.488-497.