You’ve probably heard the saying “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” But is it true? Can you really use food to beat a cold?
It all depends on what you eat. Certain foods may help ease the severity of a cold or shorten its duration, while others can work against recovery.
“Most of our immune system resides in the digestive ecosystem,” explains integrative nutritionist Kathie Swift, RDN, MS. This means that what we eat has a direct impact on how quickly and effectively our bodies are able to fight off an infection.
Plenty of research has shown that certain foods boost immunity, fight inflammation, and help speed healing. Often, when we’re feeling rundown, we may instinctively gravitate toward them. Read on to learn why our bodies call out for those cold-relieving foods.
What Is a Cold?
A viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, the common cold exhibits familiar symptoms: runny or stuffy nose, congestion, sore throat, coughing, and sneezing. In some cases, it triggers a low-grade fever, body aches, a headache, and exhaustion.
The main cause of misery is not the virus itself but your immune system’s response to it. Cold bugs don’t do much damage to the respiratory lining, but the immune system treats them as mortal enemies and launches a full-scale attack. This all-out inflammatory response is the root of a cold’s uncomfortable symptoms, which is why eating anti-inflammatory foods can help you feel better faster.
The centuries-old practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) views such inflammatory responses through the lens of body temperature: Your system is too hot or too cold.
“Everything in Traditional Chinese Medicine is related to temperature — the temperature of your body, the temperature of the food,” says nutritionist Judy Deutsch, MSRD, LDN. “You want to eat to balance out your temperature.”
Not surprisingly, many of the foods that TCM uses to help regulate body temperature are the same ones Western physicians recognize as inflammation fighters and immunity supporters. This can be hard to picture, so here’s what it looks like in practice.
How to Eat When You’re Sick
Western medicine and TCM both offer baseline rules for eating when you have a cold. First, choose easily digestible foods. You don’t want your body to divert its limited energy away from healing to digestion.
“No greasy foods, no fried foods,” says Los Angeles–based acupuncturist Mona Dan, LAc, MTOM, who also consults with her patients on nutrition. She suggests sticking with neutral and comforting meals.
Homemade soup is a great choice; it’s full of healing nutrients and is easy to digest. Soup is also a winner because it’s generally eaten hot. TCM practitioners believe cold drinks and raw foods are anathema to healing when you have a cold.
“TCM favors cooked foods and avoidance of too much cold, raw food, which taxes the spleen,” says Deutsch. “Your spleen helps distribute nutrients. Keeping it warm keeps the energy moving. Dampness, on the other hand, can accumulate and slow the healing process.” TCM believes the spleen circulates chi, or vital energy.
Attending to lifestyle factors like rest and recovery is also critical. If you’re feeling stressed, are overexercising, or are undersleeping, food won’t make up the deficit.
“You can’t expect to run yourself ragged and not sleep and then eat three oranges and miraculously recover from a cold,” says integrative clinical nutritionist Mary Purdy, MS, RDN.
“Supporting the body overall is key.”