The sniffles, sneezes and coughs that provide the soundtrack of the sick season are unavoidable. Even health care professionals get sick too. When they do, they use the health properties of certain foods to nourish the body and support recovery.
Nicole Herrmann, MS, RD, CLEC, clinical nutrition manager at Sharp Coronado Hospital
When sick, it is always important to continue to consume healthy and nutrient-dense foods with plenty of fluids to maintain strength and hydration.
When sick, it is very important to ensure you don’t become dehydrated, as your body needs fluids to function properly, especially when fighting off illness. A great way to do this is drinking hot teas, warm water with lemon, or 100% fruit juices with no added sugar. If you have a sore throat or need something warm and comforting, try drinking warmed-up juices. Soups are also a great way to maintain adequate fluids and provide sustenance when sick; be mindful of the sodium content in store-bought soups. The recommendation by the American Heart Association is that healthy adults should try not to exceed more than 2300mg sodium per day.
Maintain a healthy diet
It can be tough to maintain a normal dietary intake when you are sick, but it’s important to focus on foods that are nutrient-dense. Eating smaller, more frequent meals is especially important if you have symptoms of nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Nutrient-dense means the food items are packed full of protein, complex carbohydrates (not sugar), healthy fats (poly/monounsaturated fats), whole grains, vitamins and minerals. Avoid “empty calorie” foods, such as chips, soda and sweets as they have little nutritional value.
If food consumption during illness is challenging, eating soft, bland foods and liquids might be best to start with. Items to try include eggs, cottage cheese (1% or skim milk), chicken noodle soup, plain yogurt, toast and cooked vegetables.
Melissa Hughes, RDN, certified wellness and health coach and program manager for the Sharp Rees-Stealy Center for Health Management
Prioritizing nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats) is a great way to make sure that the body has the nutrients it needs to stay healthy all year long. However, when I feel like I am fighting something, I focus on increasing my intake of foods that have immune-boosting power:
Because your body cannot make vitamin C, it must come from the foods you eat every day. The vitamin C content of fruits and vegetables may be reduced by prolonged storage and by cooking. It's best to eat them as soon as possible after shopping, and also consider steaming or microwaving vegetables for short periods of time to limit nutrient loss. In addition to citrus fruits, vitamin C is also found in tomatoes, potatoes, strawberries, green and red bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kiwi.
Zinc is needed for the growth and function of immune cells so increasing your zinc intake will help to strengthen your immune system. Sources of zinc include lean meat, fish, oysters, poultry, eggs, whole grains, spinach, beans, seeds and nuts.
Carotenoids are the pigments in plants that are responsible for bright-colored fruits and vegetables. They act as antioxidants and help to improve immune response. They can be found in red, orange and green fruits and vegetables, including broccoli, carrots, cooked tomatoes, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, winter squash, apricots, cantaloupe, oranges and watermelon.
Other tips for getting and staying well
With a respiratory illness, drinking clear liquids is important to help thin mucus secretions. Stay away from beverages with caffeine, which provide less hydration. Be sure to up what you normally drink if you are sneezing, having a productive cough or blowing your nose frequently.
One often-overlooked key to staying healthy is getting enough sleep. Aim for eight hours per night. To get close to eight hours, use these tips support a healthy sleep routine.
Hand washing on a regular basis — and especially before preparing or eating food — is necessary to keep you healthy.
This story was updated in October of 2020.