Medically reviewed by Brian H. Wetchler, DO
Many believe the saying "feed a cold, starve a fever" began with Hippocrates (around 400 B.C.) and lasted until the early 1900s. This was before the discovery that germs cause disease. During this time, most people thought the source of illness was an odor, an evil spirit, or the weather. One belief was that cold weather caused a cold and hot weather caused a fever.
The saying became popular due to a belief that eating extra would generate warmth with a cold, while avoiding food (starving) would cool the body down from a fever. There is some correlation between certain illnesses and cold weather, but it's not because the cold weather causes the illness. Instead, people tend to spend more time indoors, making it easier to spread germs.
This article reviews facts regarding eating with colds and fevers and ways to break, not starve, a fever.
Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever: What Is and Isn’t True?
The adage “feed a cold, starve a fever” has some truth to it. You should eat (but not overeat) when you have a cold.
But the “why” differs from the beliefs of previous eras. The body needs food for energy and nutrition, not to warm up to fight the cold.
What Causes a Fever?
Fevers are typically the immune system's response to an invading pathogen (germ). When your body detects a germ, it triggers a fever as a defense mechanism, making it more difficult for that germ to survive. Sometimes medications or being in a hot environment for an extended time can cause an increase in your core body temperature, too.
However, the concept of starving a fever has no merit. No scientific evidence suggests that you should starve yourself, regardless of whether you have a fever or a cold.
Nutrition and fluids help you keep up with caloric demands and avoid dehydration. Starving yourself depletes the body of essential nutrients, calories, energy, and muscle mass.
Evidence shows intermittent fasting (IF) could help boost the immune system. However, experts who recommend or follow this practice do not condone starvation. They encourage adequate nutrition during eating windows to maintain health.
What About COVID-19?
COVID-19 and the flu are viruses that can cause higher fevers than the viruses that cause the common cold. Despite the degree of fever, proper nutrition and hydration are always important.
How to Eat With a Cold or Fever
Instead of overeating or starving yourself when you have a cold or fever, focus on eating nutrient-rich foods to help your body fight the infection.
When you are sick, you may not be hungry or want to eat due to nausea. It can be helpful to start with bland foods like dry cereal, oatmeal, or crackers. You can also follow the “BRAT diet,” which is an acronym for:
Eating small, frequent meals helps prevent nausea and maintain your energy levels. If your stomach is up to it, try eating foods that contain:
Vitamins A, D, C, and E
Minerals such as zinc, copper, iron, and selenium
Antioxidants (things that prevent or delay cell damage)
These nutrients fight infection, boost the immune system, and help you maintain muscle mass. Eating a variety of the following nutrient-dense foods can help support your recovery when you have a cold or a fever:
Chicken soup: Chicken soup, especially with bone broth and vegetables, is rich in collagen, vitamins, minerals, and protein. It also helps you reduce congestion and soothe a sore throat.
Fruits: Oranges, grapefruits, cherries, tomatoes, apricots, red bell peppers, blackberries, and cantaloupe are all good sources of antioxidants, vitamins (including vitamin C), and minerals.
Vegetables: Vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach are rich in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals that can help support the immune system.
Garlic: Garlic has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
Fructans: Bananas are a healthy source of fructans, which have antiviral properties. Other healthy sources of fructans include garlic, onions, chicory, asparagus, and artichokes.
Legumes: Legumes such as lentils and chickpeas are a good source of plant-based protein, zinc, and vitamin B.
Salmon: Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which help the immune system block virus replication.
Nuts and seeds: Cashews, brazil nuts, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, and pumpkin seeds are rich in minerals. Chia and flaxseeds are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and protein.
Fermented foods: Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, contain beneficial bacteria that can help improve intestinal (gut) health and boost the immune system.
Turmeric: Turmeric contains curcumin, a compound known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Ginger: Ginger helps reduce inflammation, sore throat, and nausea.
Honey: Honey has antioxidants, vitamin C, and anti-inflammatory properties. It can help alleviate a cough and soothe a sore throat.
Foods to Avoid
Avoid the following foods as they can make it harder to fight infection, worsen dehydration, and interrupt sleep:
Sugary foods or drinks
Dairy products have a lot of great vitamins and minerals, but they can worsen your congestion if you have a cold. If you don’t have congestion—or if dairy is not worsening the congestion you have—continue eating these foods as part of a balanced diet.
Other Ways to Break, Not Starve, a Fever
A fever is the body's natural response to fighting off infections such as colds and flu. Healthcare providers grade fevers as mild, high, and very high. For adults, the general guidelines are as follows:
Low-grade fever: 99.5 degrees F to 100.4 degrees F
Fever: 100.4 degrees F or higher
High-grade fever: 103 degrees F
Very high or dangerous: Above 105 degrees F
If you have a low-grade fever that is causing you discomfort, the following tips can help break it.
Cool compress: Place a cool, damp cloth on the forehead, under the arms, behind the neck, or on the wrists.
A lukewarm (not too hot or cold) bath or shower: Avoid extremely cold, ice, or alcohol baths because they can be dangerous.
Keep your body cool: Avoid excess blankets, sweaters, or jackets, and keep the room pleasantly cool.
Rest: Give your body the time and rest it needs to fight off the infection and reduce fever.
Drink plenty of fluids: Drink fluids to help avoid dehydration and keep mucus thin. Water, ice chips, ice pops, soup, gelatin, clear broths, and herbal teas are all good choices. Avoid overly hot beverages or broth.
If your fever persists for an extended period or reaches a high temperature, seek medical attention from a healthcare professional.
Related: What Is a Normal Body Temperature?
The saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” is an adage and is inaccurate. You should eat a nutrient-rich, balanced diet whether you have a fever, cold (virus), or bacterial infection. Starving yourself weakens the immune system and deprives the body of essential nutrients. Avoid overeating as it can make it harder for the body to digest foods and lead to discomfort.
There is no need to force yourself (or someone else) to eat when you don’t feel good. But, consider bland foods and drink plenty of fluids. Consider a cool compress or OTC fever reducers if you have a fever. Seek medical attention if your symptoms or fever persist or worsen.