No doubt about it: Being sick sucks. The sniffling, coughing, nausea, exhaustion, and general ickiness of it never gets easier. And when you’ve been through the wringer with a cold or the flu enough times, you know that all you can do is make yourself as comfortable as possible while things run their course.
One thing that can be particularly challenging, though, is keeping yourself fed while your body’s doing its thing. Being sick can sometimes decrease your appetite in general, and even your favorite foods might not sit well when you’re feeling off. Plus, some symptoms, like a sore throat or an upset stomach, can make you want to skip meals even if you feel hungry or have low energy. But getting enough nutrients is super important for helping your body fight off whatever is making you feel miserable.
Truthfully, the best foods to eat when you’re sick are the ones that you enjoy and are able to keep down. And while your meal isn’t going to be a magic cure, some foods and drinks do have certain qualities that might make you feel better. If you’re struggling to find options that sound appealing, here’s a list of the best foods to eat when you have a cold, the flu, COVID, or some other gnarly illness.
1. Coconut water or a sports drink
“If you’re experiencing symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, or excessive sweating due to high fever, chances are you may become dehydrated,” Ryann Jung, MS, RD, a dietitian in Visalia, California, tells SELF. And that can make you feel even worse by bringing on symptoms like headaches, dizziness, fatigue, and dry mouth. Jung recommends drinking coconut water because it’s packed with essential electrolytes—minerals that are important for hydration, like sodium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, and calcium.
If coconut water’s not your thing, you may want to try a traditional sports drink like Gatorade, which can provide similar fluid-restoring benefits. There’s not a ton of research comparing the two—and almost all of it is done on athletes during workouts—but one small 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that exercisers rehydrated better with coconut water and sports drinks than regular bottled water after a tough hour-long treadmill session.
One thing to note, though, is that the researchers did find the participants experienced more bloating and stomach upset after drinking coconut water. So if your belly’s already bothering you, you might be better off sipping a sports drink.
Ginger has long been a home remedy for nausea, vomiting, and digestive discomfort, Elizabeth Stasny, MCN, RD, a dietitian in Dallas, tells SELF. And research shows that it’s a pretty good one. One huge 2019 review published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine concluded that ginger doses of up to about 1,500 milligrams per day—for context, one teaspoon of ground ginger contains slightly more than that—can reduce nausea and vomiting, largely without any serious side effects. (That said, some people might experience heartburn from eating ginger, especially in high doses.) While most of the included studies looked specifically at how ginger affects nausea triggered by pregnancy, chemotherapy, or surgery, that’s not to say it can’t also help regular ol’ flu symptoms too.
The two main components of ginger that likely have these anti-nausea effects are gingerols and shogaols. Different types of ginger—say, fresh, dried, powdered, or concentrated—likely contain both, so you don’t need to worry too much about whether you sip some ginger tea or add a heap of minced ginger to your soup.
A spoonful of sugar can certainly help the medicine go down, but if you have a cough, a gulp of honey is probably the better bet, Stasny says. In fact, one Cochrane review published in 2019 found that honey is likely more effective than no remedy, a placebo, or over-the-counter medicines that contain diphenhydramine (like Benadryl) at relieving cough symptoms in kids. (While commonly known to ease allergy symptoms, the antihistamine can also relieve a cough due to minor throat irritation.) And compared to OTC meds made with dextromethorphan (like DayQuil Cough and Robitussin), honey had almost the same cough-quelling effect.
The fine print: Most studies explore the efficacy of honey-based cough syrups or straight-up spoonfuls of honey, not honey mixed into food or melted into drinks—so don’t expect a squirt of it swirled into your oatmeal or poured into your tea to necessarily have the same effect. The authors of the above review also note that for coughs lasting more than three days, honey probably isn’t an effective remedy on its own. Still, if you’re dealing with a scratchy throat along with that cough, honey might help soothe it—thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties—so it probably doesn’t hurt to squeeze some of that sweetness into your favorite hot drink.
4. Chicken soup
“When you’re feeling under the weather, warm chicken soup has been a time-tested remedy that offers both comfort and potential health benefits,” Sharon McCaskill, RD, a dietitian based in New York, tells SELF. “Chicken soup may help reduce inflammation in the upper respiratory tract, potentially easing symptoms of a common cold.” As a study in the journal Chest reported, many cold symptoms, like cough and congestion, are triggered by an inflammatory immune response to the infection—but the ingredients in a steamy bowl of chicken soup can help thwart the rush of the protective cells involved in that reaction. Plus, the warm broth (and the hydration it provides) “can soothe a sore throat and keep you nourished while you’re unwell.”
What’s more, soup is relatively easy to eat—you can sip it and the chicken and vegetables are all soft and easy to chew—so it’s a good way to eat a variety of filling nutrients, including protein and fiber, that might be tough to get down otherwise.
5. Spices, seasonings, and other flavor-boosters
Cold, flu, COVID, and even allergy symptoms can weaken your senses of taste and smell and tank your appetite. This can be a real catch-22: Getting the energy and nutrients you need is an important part of recovery—but who wants to eat food they can’t enjoy?
That’s why Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, a dietitian based in Kansas City, Kansas, recommends adding as much flavor to your food as possible through spices and seasonings. Knowing that your meal will taste great makes it more exciting and palatable, which encourages you to have more than a bite or two. If you’re able to take in more nutrient-rich food, that’ll only support your healing process, Harbstreet says.
Need some spice inspo? Certain kinds—including cinnamon, chili pepper, turmeric, cloves, black pepper, curry powder, and fenugreek—have been used for medicinal purposes in various cultures for centuries, and boost the flavor of a whole bunch of dishes: Sprinkle some cinnamon on your morning oatmeal, add turmeric to your rice, or shake black pepper into dressings or marinades. And if you’re one of those people who automatically double (or triple) the amount of garlic called for in any recipe, you’ll be happy to know that research suggests an active compound in it may support your immune system in doing its job—and it may even come with some anti-inflammatory benefits, Holli Ryan, RD, a dietitian in Pompano Beach, Florida, tells SELF.
Of course, feeling sick can mean many different things; if you’re nauseated or have an upset stomach and strong flavors seem like they’ll make things worse, you can skip this one.
While flavorful foods can sometimes help tempt you to eat when you’re feeling icky and your taste buds are all out of whack, bland foods might be the better bet if you’re struggling through certain digestive symptoms. If you’re dealing with diarrhea, a BRAT diet—including bananas, broth, rice, applesauce, and toast—could help soothe your churning stomach and bulk up your poop, since these foods are low in fiber and generally easy to tolerate, per the US National Library of Medicine. Bananas are particularly great because they’re rich in potassium, an electrolyte that you may be running low on if you’re dehydrated. They’re also soft, which means they go down easy if you’re dealing with a sore throat along with your GI troubles.
If you feel congested or have a sore throat, foods that require a ton of chewing might be a no-go, but an all-liquid diet probably won’t be hearty enough to help you kick that cold—and let’s face it, most of us aren’t satisfied by drinking juice and smoothies alone. That’s why Ryan recommends oatmeal as a quick and easy-to-swallow meal idea.
A warm bowl of oats is an especially good idea if you’re feeling backed up—something that can totally happen when you’re not eating your regular diet. A 2014 review published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at previous research and found that oat consumption was associated with less constipation, thanks to its fiber content. Even if you’re doing fine in the bathroom, reaching for a bowl of oatmeal topped with nutrient-rich and tasty add-ins like fruit and nuts is a great way to keep yourself nourished when you’re feeling like crap.
Speaking of foods that go down easily, yogurt is easy to swallow, cool, and relatively bland. And thanks to its probiotics, it might also help you fight off your nasty cold quicker: According to research in the British Journal of Nutrition, probiotics—specifically Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains—can potentially cut the number of days you feel sick. Your morning parfait may play a nifty preventive role, too. A 2021 meta-analysis in the Nutrition Journal found that people who ate yogurt and other dairy products with Lactobacillus were less likely to come down with a cold or other respiratory infection in the first place. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s behind this link, but it’s possible that the “good” bacteria help aid your immune system—and that the Lactobacillus in particular may help quell inflammation.
9. Leafy greens
Leafy greens like kale, spinach, lettuce, and bok choy are packed with tons of vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C and K, iron, and folate.
They also contain polyphenols, compounds that have been shown to help promote proper immune function (and potentially protect against conditions like cancer and heart disease, too). If you’re up for chewing, try adding a side salad to your meal when you’re sick, or throw some chopped leafy greens into a soup, stir-fry, or stew. If all that texture just aggravates your symptoms, you can try blending frozen kale or spinach into a smoothie. The icy, smooth texture might be just what you need to soothe a scratchy throat—and get in the nutrients you need to feel better, fast.
Originally Appeared on SELF