Is there a Diet for Colds and Flu?

Two miserly companions of the winter months are the cold and the flu. While you can have a cold or flu anytime of the year, the incidence spikes in winter months likely due to our closer quarters.

A flu generally has a sudden onset with symptoms of fever, cough, chills, body aches, headache and fatigue. A cold, on the other hand can come on over the course of a couple of days. Symptoms may include runny nose, sneezing, sore throat and cough, headache and body ache.

You may be wondering if there is a diet for cold and flu and I would like to suggest that they are two. The first would be the diet that you follow while you have a cold or flu and the second would be the diet to prevent a cold or flu. Let’s discuss both of these.

Diet During the Cold or Flu

When you have a fever during a bout of the flu this is your body’s defense system at work. It’s raising your temperature to kill off the invading virus. This has a couple of important nutrition implications. First off, a fever raises your body’s calorie requirements. This is likely not too much of a concern for most people as they are also burning fewer calories due to less activity. Losing a couple of pounds during an transitory illness isn’t too concerning, for a healthy individual and let’s face it, it’s hard to eat anything when you have the flu, let alone forcing yourself to increase beyond your usual intake.

The second implication of a fever is that you loose more fluid as you sweat. This is something you want to take action for. Ideally, you would want to increase your fluid intake to replace the additional losses. You can do this by drinking more and by eating high fluid foods like smoothies, juices, soups, puddings and applesauce. Keeping yourself hydrated is an important goal to set. You don’t want to get dehydrated, as that can lead to other problems, like constipation and headaches.

When you have a cold, you don’t have a fever, but you can certainly be losing extra fluid when you blow your nose multiple times a day. What about that popular saying: Feed a cold and starve a fever. According to sources, this maxim comes from the belief that eating food may help the body generate warmth during a “cold” and that avoiding food may help it cool down when overheated. As far as eating goes, do what feels right to you and your body, but definitely keep yourself hydrated – for both cold and flu.

Diet to Prevent the Cold or Flu

A diet that supports a strong immune system would be the diet to help protect you from all kinds of foreign invaders; including flu and cold-causing viruses. The current recommendations are to consume a balanced diet – meaning a balance of foods from the different food groups.  Some of the nutrients that are thought to be especially supportive of the immune system include the following

Protein – found in animal products including meat, eggs and dairy, but also in whole plant foods such as soy, beans, peas lentils and nuts.

Vitamin E – this fat soluble vitamin is found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils and avocados

Vitamin B6 – if you like hummus and chickpeas then you are in luck as B6 is abundant here. Other food sources include fish, fruits and legumes.

Selenium – this mineral is easy to get if you simply eat one Brazil nut every day.

Prebiotics – this is a type of fiber that helps to keep your health-promoting gut bacteria happy. Good sources include bananas, onion and asparagus.

Probiotics are the health bacteria that are found in select fermented foods. While a lack of labelling guidelines make it difficult to know for sure which fermented foods contain live probiotic bacteria, a good bet is to look for the works probiotic when shopping for yogurt or kefir.

Other beneficial nutrients include vitamin C, A, folate and the minerals zinc and iron.

Make sure you get your vitamins and minerals from food, as taking a supplement may not give the same effect. In fact, several supplements like Echinacea, vitamin C, zinc and selenium and had claims linked to them that they either boost the immune system or prevent colds and flu, but according to Eat Right Ontario, they have not met the burden of proof in that regard. So, instead of spending your money on supplements, better to spend it on real food.

In addition to these immune-supporting nutrients, there are lifestyle changes that can support the immune system too and these include, regular stress management, moderate exercise, laughter, spending time in nature and sleeping 7-9 hours every night.

Eating a balanced diet, getting a good night sleep and of course regular hand washing will go a long way to helping you stay cold and flu free this season.

References

  1. EatRightOntario. Facts on the Immune System
  2. Immune System Nutrition
  3. Echinacea and colds
  4. Vitamin C and colds
  5. How to Strengthen Immunity
  6. Immune Boosting Nutrition

Jean LaMantia is a registered dietitian, cancer survivor and author of the best-selling book The Essential Cancer Treatment Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. She has been providing one-on-one nutrition counselling to CAREpath clients since 2004.