Don’t starve the beast

By: Ashley Newport Dec 22, 2010
  Article

There are a lot of myths surrounding fevers and colds, so ignore the conventional wisdom and try to feed (and water) everything

If you or your child has a fever, you probably don’t need speed to the ER in a blinding panic. However, in the course of home treatment, don’t rely on the “feed this/starve that” mythos and old-fashioned sayings to get you through the night sweats and congestion. Instead, try to eat what you can (and what soothes you) and remember to drink constantly (water, juice, and tea) to stay hydrated.

The fever

“I think that the ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ saying is an old wives tale,” says Dundas, Ont.-based registered dietitian Shannon Crocker. “What you need [for sure] is plenty of fluids with a fever. Food is not as critical; it’s about getting fluids into your body.”

If you have a fever, your body is likely fighting some kind of infection and you should choose foods that will boost its ability to conquer the misery-inducing invader. “You want things like orange juice with a bit of ice,” says Crocker. “It has vitamin C, which can help boost your immunity.” As for eating, Crocker warns that feverish people often have a reduced appetite, so the goal isn’t to force feed the body solid nutrients, but rather to slowly consume foods that it can tolerate. It’s also important to remember that in the throes of a fever, you’re actually burning more calories than usual, and so you may want to eat a bit more to compensate.

“Try some comfort foods,” advises Crocker. “Honey might soothe your throat, and tea with some ginger might help as well. [When you start to feel better], add in plain foods like dry toast, cereal and crackers. Stay hydrated, and make sure you have protein, fruit and vegetables.”

If your fever is accompanied by vomiting or diarrhea, however, Crocker advises avoiding eating within an hour of an episode, and to stay away from certain foods — like some dairy products — that may be too difficult for an irritated digestive tract to handle.

The cold

The cold, though unpleasant, isn’t usually quite as debilitating as the fever. However, it can be hard to focus on battling the sneezy, puffy-eyed beast when you’re going through full boxes of tissue in minutes.

“For a cold, chicken soup, fluids and a little spice can help with congestion,” says Crocker. “And there are really no foods in particular to avoid.”

Crocker also adds that conventional — but unsubstantiated wisdom — recommending the avoidance of dairy during a cold is incorrect. “The idea that dairy makes congestion worse is a myth,” she says. “It can give a coating feeling, but it does not produce more phlegm, so you don’t have to avoid milk if you enjoy it.”

The key to an easy (well, easier) ride through minor sickness is to stay as healthy and nourished as you can, as a strong immune system remains the best line of defense.

“Vitamin D may help boost health overall, from milk or even supplements, and probiotics can help as well,” says Crocker. “You should be able to get most [of the vitamins] you need from food, but have a multi-vitamin as a back-up. Zinc is also important, and you can find it in red meat and breakfast cereal. However, don’t take it as a supplement [unless otherwise advised by a doctor], as too much can depress your immune system.”

Ashley Newport is a freelance journalist based in Toronto – well, in a city a little west of Toronto. She’s been writing for two years about almost everything. Her favourite topics include politics, society, entertainment, food and health. She loves to find out new things about nutrition, because she knows how important it is to know more about the health benefits of the foods you love. Her work can be found in Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine and a small Oakville community online paper located somewhere in cyberspace (Google Ashley to find it!).