What Should I Eat or Drink When I Have a Cold?

From hot toddies to chicken soup, there are a few important things to keep in mind, experts say.

In a recent edition of ‘Ask Well’ in The New York Times, Penn Nursing’s Assistant Professor in Nutrition Science, Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, MPH, RD, CSOWM, LDN, weighs in with some expert guidance.

If you search for the answers online, you will find plenty of articles claiming that certain “immune-boosting” foods or drinks—like garlic, citrus, cranberries, chili pepper, and pomegranate juice— can ease symptoms or speed recovery from a common cold.

But “we do not have strong enough information suggesting that everyone should be eating specific foods during a viral infection,” said Colleen Tewksbury, an assistant professor in nutrition science at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

That said, it’s important to feed yourself well, Dr. Tewksbury said. A cold— especially if it affects your sense of taste and smell—can squelch your appetite, yet your body still needs calories and nutrients to function and fight the infection, she said. “Anything you can do that will help you feel a bit more comforted and meet some of your nutritional needs during that time will be helpful.”

Dr. Tewksbury suggested turning to hydrating and nourishing foods and drinks that are also comforting, such as the ones you were given when you were sick as a child or those grounded in your cultural traditions.

Soup is soothing, and backed by a bit of science

“Soup tends to be a good go-to,” Dr. Tewksbury said—especially if it includes a healthy balance of nutrients, including protein (like beans or chicken), carbohydrates (rice, noodles, or potatoes), some fat (from meat, oils, or dairy), and “veggies that will pack in some additional vitamin and mineral punches.”

Soup is “filling, it’s nourishing, it helps with fluid intake,” Dr. Tewksbury said.

And in fact, said Dr. Stephen Rennard, a professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, there’s a little bit of lab-based science to back it up…

Go easy on alcohol

Some cold sufferers may seek comfort in a hot toddy, which traditionally includes a splash of whiskey and honey in hot water. But keep in mind that drinking alcohol when you’re also taking medications for cold, cough, and allergy symptoms can be dangerous, especially if the medications include acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage if mixed with alcohol, Dr. Tewksbury warned. Alcohol can also be dehydrating, and though there isn’t much research on this point, it stands to reason that drinking while sick with a virus might worsen how you feel, Dr. Tewksbury added. That being said, if a hot toddy is what you’re craving when you have the sniffles and you’re not taking any medications that will negatively interact with alcohol, Dr. Tewksbury said she wouldn’t discourage mixing up a drink. Just remember that it probably won’t help you heal any quicker…

The milk-mucus effect is murky

Many people believe that drinking cow’s milk increases mucus production, but research testing this belief is limited, with mixed results.

Several Australian studies published in the 1990s found no link between milk drinking and mucus, including among people infected with a common cold virus. Yet in a recent trial of 108 adults who didn’t have colds but who suffered from chronic overproduction of mucus, researchers found that those following a dairy-free diet for six days had reduced self-reported snot secretions.

“There is little evidence that dairy universally increases mucus production for everyone,” Dr. Tewksbury said. But this may vary from person to person, so if dairy makes you feel phlegmy, avoiding it when you have a cold is reasonable, she said. Otherwise, dairy products can be a convenient and balanced source of nutrition. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends blending frozen fruit with milk (or soy milk) for a nutritious and hydrating smoothie for children when they are sick.

In the end, “food is so personal,” Dr. Tewksbury said. When you’re feeling flattened by a cold, she suggested asking yourself: “What are the things that can help me feel most nourished during this time, to help support myself? And that’s different for everybody.”

The above is an excerpt from the January 10, 2023 edition of ‘Ask Well’ by Alice Callahan in The New York Times.

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