While no specific food can cure sickness, sometimes, eating the right thing can relieve symptoms and help you feel better. But keep in mind that what works for one person might not work for another. The best thing you can do when you don’t feel well is to focus on what helps you and what sounds appealing.
Here, dietitian Andrea Dunn, RD, breaks down what foods to eat and drink when you’re feeling under the weather.
Foods to eat when sick
Dunn says that when you think about what foods to eat when you’re sick, think about it as three basic categories:
- What to eat or drink when you’re dehydrated (or to avoid becoming dehydrated).
- What to eat or drink when your gut is sick (like diarrhea).
- What to eat or drink when you feel nauseous (or have a stomachache).
What to eat when you’re dehydrated
When you’re sick and don’t feel well, you might not have an appetite or you might feel like you can’t keep anything down. But if you’re not eating or drinking, dehydration can quickly set in.
“Oftentimes when we’re sick and don’t feel good, dehydration is a big part of it,” explains Dunn. “It might be because you’re throwing up or running to the bathroom every five minutes. Or you might feel so sick that you just don’t have an appetite.”
But dehydration is one of the biggest reasons why people end up in the emergency room when they’re sick.
You might be so dehydrated that you can’t walk or you pass out and hit your head. Moderate to severe dehydration needs quick medical attention. If left untreated, dehydration can cause urinary or kidney problems, seizures and can even be life-threatening.
Here’s what to eat and drink when you’re dehydrated or to avoid becoming dehydrated:
- Beverages. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot, cold or room temperature – any type of liquid is going to help combat dehydration. Just try to sip liquids steadily throughout the day. Aim for water, electrolyte or sports drinks, coffee, teas, juice, soda or carbonated water.
- Soup. There’s a reason that chicken noodle soup is most people’s go-to when they don’t feel well. It’s typically more filling than plain water since it contains more calories, protein and vitamins. It’s also a good source of liquids and electrolytes. But if this traditional soup doesn’t sound appealing to you, try out other types of soups and broths for additional calories and hydration. Plus, soup in general can act as a natural decongestion when served hot.
- Foods that are mainly liquid. If you’re having a hard time drinking fluids, aim for foods that are mainly liquid, but served cold or frozen. Try foods like ice cream, popsicles, Jell-O and pudding.
- Fruit. Fresh fruit contains many important vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that your body needs – even when you’re not sick! Eating fruit when you’re feeling under the weather can provide a nutrient boost, as well as hydration. Aim for juicy fruits that are made up of mostly water, like melons, berries, oranges and grapes.
What to eat when your gut is sick
Diarrhea is when food is moving too quickly through your body. You’ll want to focus on eating foods that can slow that process down, which means choosing foods that contain soluble fiber. This type of fiber acts as a thickening agent and adds form to the stool to help slow it down.
Dunn says that when your gut is sick, you’ll want to avoid or limit caffeine and sugar alcohols. Caffeine can overstimulate your digestive system and make diarrhea worse. Sugar alcohols don’t get absorbed in the gut and instead hang out in your large intestine, which can lead to bloating, stomach pain and more diarrhea.
Here’s what to eat and drink when your gut is sick:
- Anything on the BRAT diet. Mom was right. Eat a diet that follows the acronym, BRAT – bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Most people suffering from diarrhea can tolerate a few of these simple foods.
- Bland foods. Although not super exciting, very plain and bland foods can help ease symptoms. Try pasta, dry cereals, oatmeal, bread and crackers. But bland doesn’t mean you can’t add protein or veggies into the mix if you’re feeling up for it! Try eating rice and baked chicken breast or cheese and crackers.
- Some fruits and vegetables. Try to add in boiled or baked potatoes, winter squash, baked apples, applesauce or bananas.
What to eat when you’re nauseous or have a stomachache
From the stomach flu, to food poisoning, to pregnancy – feeling nauseated can derail your entire day. And nausea can run the full spectrum, from vomiting, to feeling an overall sense of queasiness, to dry heaving.
“When you’re feeling nauseous or have a stomachache, you should really try to eat every couple of hours,” says Dunn. “Eating small amounts more frequently can help get a little food at a time into your system.”
Here’s what to eat and drink when you’re nauseous:
- Ginger. This spice is well-known for its anti-nausea effects. Try ginger snaps, ginger ale, ginger tea or sucking on a few pieces of ginger candy. You can even try crystallized ginger, which is more soft and chewy and lightly coated in sugar.
- Dry foods. Try nibbling on a few pieces of dry foods every couple of hours when you’re battling nausea. Try pretzels, dry cereal, toast or plain crackers like saltines.
- Cold foods & foods with little odor. Because smells can trigger nausea (especially in pregnancy), cold foods might be a good choice. Try Jell-O, ice cream, frozen fruit, yogurt or popsicles. Even sucking on an ice cube is a good way to replenish fluids.
What do you need to keep on hand for sick days?
When you’re hit with the flu, a cold or general crud, the last thing you’ll want to do is leave your home or go to the store and spread your germs. Instead, stock up on food now to have on hand in case you or someone in your house gets sick.
Stock up on:
- Canned soup.
- Jell-O mixes.
- Juice boxes.
- Canned fruit (packed in its own juice).
- Canned chicken.
- Cheese sticks.
- Put a few pieces of bread in the freezer so you have it on hand.