How do you fight the flu with food?
Remember the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” Me too, but that’s cold comfort when you are sitting alone in your bedroom with a fever, buying stock in Kimberly Clark as you use your seventh box of Kleenex as you battle the winter flu. So besides Jetson’s probiotics that have specially formulated strains to help support a strong immune system to help prevent the flu, a question I get often is what food should I eat when you have the stomach or whole-body flu?
First off – let’s look at foods that have high vitamin content. There are certainly key vitamins and minerals you should be consuming that have demonstrated (although sometimes very lightly so) effects on your immune response, but eating whole, natural foods when you’re sick literally can’t hurt. Unless, of course, your symptoms include not being able to keep them down, at which point you’ll want to watch what you’re putting in your maw.
So in no particular order:
- Fruits that contain Vitamin C: Yes, studies are not conclusive when it comes to vitamin C and the cold, but there are enough to point to loading up on this vitamin when you’re down for the count. Oranges (not Sunny Delight, please) and other citrus, strawberries, kiwis (because I know you have those sitting around) are all good choices. Can you take a supplement? Yes. Can your body absorb it as easily? Probably not. Eat some fruit.
- Foods that contains Vitamin E: Any leafy vegetables can help here: kale (doesn’t that sound delicious when you have the flu?), spinach, swiss chard, arugula – you name it. Vitamin E is your friend and it’s plenty available in the green stuff.
- Vitamin A-heavy foods: My nutritionist (who is a genius) really pushes heavy Vitamin A doses when you’re coming down with something. Here you should look for for vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach (again) and if you’re not vegetarian, try tuna and beef. The reality is Vitamin A comes in two forms: preformed Vitamin A and carotenoids. Carotenoids, like beta-carotene, are found in plants and have to be converted by the body into usable Vitamin A. Preformed Vitamin A is found in animal food sources. They also need to be metabolized by your body into an active form of Vitamin A. Some people can’t convert carotenoids into Vitamin A, so if that’s you, you’re better off eating the meat versions.
- Vitamin D: Has been shown by a study published in JAMA to help prevent colds in the first place. Eggs are your friend to get high-quality Vitamin D – especially the yolks.
- Zinc: Unlike Vitamin C, zinc has some good metastudies to support its role in helping fend off the flu. Where can you get it? Besides the various lozenges (and in Jetson’s Winter Immunity product), key sources for zinc are legumes like chickpeas, lentils and beans (so make a nice lentil soup with chicken broth and you’re getting a double-whammy of goodness), eggs (nature’s superfood), nuts and depending on your diet, meat (like beef and dark-meat chicken). If you’re feeling fancy, go for lobster and Alaskan King Crab. Because nothing says “I have the flu” like Lobster Thermidor…
Ok, enough with the vitamins and minerals. What else should you eat when you have the stomach flu? You probably have heard this from your grandma, but focus on hydration. When you’re sick, it’s super easy to get dehydrated if you’re sweating with a fever or… losing fluids in other ways that aren’t so fun. Staying hydrated with water or other fluids are key because, in addition to getting your entire body’s systems moving (think kidneys for detox), you need liquids to break up congestion and keep viruses at bay. The more liquids you consume, the more you will evacuate. Soup is one thing that people believe has magical powers, and indeed broths can be helpful. But soup (especially things like chicken noodle soup) can also contain a ton of sodium, which can really make you feel worse. So if you’re going to eat it, watch the salt.
So the number one liquid to consume when you have the flu to keep hydrated? If you said Gatorade, please try again. I know you were told when you were a kid that you need electrolytes which is just a fancy name for minerals like sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphate. Electrolytes are great for your body (and required) in general, but you certainly DO NOT want to be putting high-sugar drinks like Gatorade in your stomach when you’re sick. You don’t want to exit the flu and start on a path to type-2 diabetes…
No, the number one thing to keep hydrated when you’re sick is – wait for it – water!
Tons and tons of water. I try to drink 90-100oz day when I’m healthy, so you can imagine what I consume when I’m sick. I know many of you tell me you can’t take the taste of water (let that sink in), so here is a great, low-sugar electrolyte packed drink you can make so you can mask that … nasty?… water taste and kick that fever. You’ll notice the drink contains coconut water, which is another great single drink you can use when you are feeling down thanks to its high concentration of electrolytes. You just need to watch the sugar – clearly you need some for energy, but many of them are sugar packed. So look for ones that are 100% pure and have no added ingredients.
Beyond water to keep you hydrated and stave off fever, there is one key food I use when I’m feeling like hell because of cold symptoms: ginger. The International Journal of Preventative Medicine published a study a few years ago that pointed to ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties were useful in tamping down the inflammation that can affect how your body responds to the flu – so I never enter flu season without it. First up, I grab a ton of ginger, slice it up, throw it in a sauce pan covered with water and bring to a boil for a few minutes. The resulting gingery water is so delicious and ginger is a key helper when it comes to recovering from the flu (especially for congestion and sore throat relief). I then squeeze a lemon into it (again, Vitamin C) and maybe even add a little honey if I’m feeling like I need some sweetness. I drink this 3-4 times a day and find it to be super helpful – especially if I am having stomach issues. Ginger keeps on the counter for weeks, so you can buy it and store it without thinking about it.
If that seems like too much work, a high quality ginger tea is also delicious and only requires you to boil water – it’s so simple almost anyone can do it regardless of your symptoms…
Next up? Antioxidant rich foods.
There is some research that suggests that eating antioxidants can assist in easing common cold or flu symptoms and can aid with infections and reducing inflammation. The studies (which I’ve read so you don’t have to…) say that that antioxidants can prevent damage to immune cells by eliminating free radicals – those things in our body that can damage your cells and reduce your immune function. In any case, there are some many antioxidant rich foods that are delicious including:
- Almonds, seeds (pepitas especially), and pecans
- Dark leafy greens… see a pattern here?
- Coffee – altho decaf is better
- Dark chocolate! (75% or higher though – none of that weak sauce)
What else? Garlic.
It’s not just for repelling vampires anymore. Many good systemic reviews (meaning studies that examine a collection of other studies) have demonstrated garlic’s ability to decrease your chance of getting a cold. In fact, a key study showed nearly a 60% reduction in people’s likelihood to get a cold if they ate garlic consistently and was shown to be helpful in reducing infections. They are not sure why, so it’s not conclusive that it will help once you already have the flu, but I’m putting on our list because a) it can’t hurt you b) there is enough evidence to support that it does have positive effects on overall health, not just when you’re trying to avoid getting sick.
Feeling like you want to hit the kitchen a little bit? Probably not. So in my case, I ask my better half to head down there and make me this delicious anti-flu smoothie from our friends at Balans. It’s easy, contains a bunch of ingredients that will make you feel better, and is high in the nutrients you need during your binge watching. Check it out here.
So there you have it – a handy list of things you should crush when you didn’t wash your hands after being on an airplane and the guy in 22C was sick as a dog.
Before I go, there is one thing I often get asked – what are the worst foods to eat when you have a cold, flu or other viral infections? Let me hit a few:
- Alcohol (no martinis for Stefan during flu time). Dehydrates, causes inflammation, and can harm sleep.
- Comfort foods (no thanks, Pizza): Things with heavy sugars and oils that take energy for your body to digest take away from the body’s resources to heal.
- Gatorade or any other sports drink: Sugar, sugar, sugar.
- Candy or simple carbs – Basically anything can be converted to sugar you should be avoiding right about now.
- Yogurt: There is controversy on this one. Some people will say to eat lots of greek yogurt when sick, but the reality is dairy can cause inflammation in many people and the primary reason you would eat yogurt is to get your live probiotic cultures – which you can do with things like Jetson. So my advice? Skip the yogurt when you’re sick – it’s often loaded with sugar and the dairy is doing you no favors.
So indeed, having the flu sucks for many reasons – namely no martinis for me – but if you follow the above tips, you’ll be able to recover quickly and get back out to your vices – until next season…