By Kasey Vavrek
When you have the flu, it may seem like nothing can make you feel better (or worse). However, relief may come from an unexpected place. Oddly enough, some foods may make your flu symptoms worse — or better — without you ever realizing it.
The flu often makes consuming food difficult, as flu symptoms can cause nausea or stomach symptoms. Nausea can decrease the desire to eat, and gastrointestinal symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea can be triggered if food is consumed too soon.
Eating nutrient-dense foods is useful no matter what kind of sickness you have. In fact, it’s especially important when you have a fever. But not all food is created equal. While comfort foods may be what you want when you’re not feeling your best, they’re not necessarily going to make you feel better. In fact, I’d suggest avoiding your go-to comfort foods, as you may end up developing a distaste for them if you consume them when nauseated.
I’d suggest avoiding these four foods when you have the flu:
Caffeinated drinks and alcohol
Between elevated temperatures and increased sweating, dehydration is something to be cautious of when you have a fever. Caffeine and alcohol can make your symptoms worse (especially stomach-related symptoms), so I’d recommend sipping on water and other clear liquids throughout the day to stay hydrated.
You’ll want to avoid foods that are difficult to break down and hard on your gastrointestinal system. Foods high in saturated fat should be avoided or limited, as well as fried, greasy foods.
Hard to digest grains
The flu occasionally causes you to have an upset stomach, so sticking with foods that are easy to digest like simple/refined carbohydrates is recommended. Foods like dry saltine crackers, toast and pretzels are easy on your stomach and are most likely to be tolerated when you have the flu. That being said, foods that are higher in fiber are also harder to digest, so I’d recommend avoiding them at first.
Sugary food or drinks
You may think vitamin C rich fruit juices are the best things to drink when you’re sick, but most of these options aren’t nutritionally dense and can inflame your immune system. Again, I’d recommend sipping on water and other clear liquids to stay hydrated.
What should I eat instead?
Broth-based soups are a good choice when you’re sick, as they’re easily tolerated but will also help to replace any fluids and sodium that may have been lost. If you’re losing a lot of fluids from stomach issues (vomiting or diarrhea), drinks with electrolytes like sports drinks or Pedialyte will help keep you hydrated better than water. Once you’re able to tolerate liquids, try slowly moving to soft, bland foods that are less likely to trigger nausea.
I’d also recommend consuming small, frequent meals once you’re able to eat, as an empty stomach can also worsen nausea in some people.
Kasey Vavrek is a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.