Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever: Fact or Fiction?

Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms

You’ve almost certainly heard of the age-old advice to ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ – but is there any scientific truth to it?

The saying ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ probably came about as, according to some medical historians, doctors in the 16th and 17th centuries may have believed that fevers were the result of an overactive metabolism, and that eating would generate even more heat, making the fever worse. They also thought that the digestive process would divert vital energy needed to fight the illness.

On the other hand, a simple cold was believed to be due to a drop in body temperature, which could be boosted by eating. As a fever is far more common with the flu than with colds, ‘feed a cold, starve a fever’ has been interpreted over the years to mean ‘feed a cold, starve a flu’.

Learn more about the difference between the common cold and the flu.

Feed a cold, starve a fever: busting the myth

There’s some truth to the first part of 'feed a cold, starve a fever', though what you eat (not just that you eat) is also important. Good nutrition is vital for a healthy immune system. Not only will it help support your defences against catching viruses such as colds or the flu in the first place, diet is especially important if you do succumb as your body needs support to fight the illness.

Raised body temperature helps some types of immune cells to work better, which is why a fever is your body’s way of combating infection. This increases your metabolism, requiring more energy and therefore calories. Needless to say, it’s a bad idea to starve a fever, as it leaves you low on energy and nutrients, making it more difficult for your body to fend off the virus. This is important for everyone, but even more so for young children, elderly people or anyone with an underlying condition such as asthma, diabetes or cancer.

While no single food will magically cure you, eating certain foods can ease cold and flu symptoms and provide energy and nutrients to help you recover faster. So, what exactly should you eat when you have a cold or the flu?

Feed a cold (and the flu): what to eat to aid recovery

Drink plenty of fluids

Your body needs extra fluids to replace any water and nutrients lost through sweating (which is likely if you have a fever). Fluids also help prevent your sinuses and respiratory passages from drying out, so you can expel the virus by coughing and blowing your nose. Furthermore, hot drinks such as tea were found in a scientific study to reduce a runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness and tiredness.

Try chicken soup

This traditional remedy is believed to get your fluids in, and as with tea, the heat can help relieve many cold and flu symptoms. It’s also a great way to get much-needed nutrients, especially if you don’t have much of an appetite.

Get your 5-a-day

We’re advised to eat at least five portions per day of fruits and vegetables because they’re packed full of nutrients, many of which support the immune system. These include vitamins A, C, E and folate (vitamin B9), as well as minerals such as selenium and iron. To ensure you get a good nutritional mix, choose a variety of different-coloured fruits and vegetables such as oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, mangoes, apricots, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and broccoli. If you've less of an appetite than normal, whizz up a smoothie to make a soothing, nutritious drink.

Go green

Dark green, leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale contain vital nutrients for immunity, including folate and iron. They also contain magnesium, which can help combat fatigue. A significant number of people in the UK – especially teenagers and young women – have low levels of this mineral, according to the British Nutrition Foundation.

Spice things up

Capsaicin, the compound that makes chilli peppers hot, can relieve a blocked nose and congestion.

Get your vitamin D

Adults and children older than a year need about 10 micrograms of vitamin D per day, according to the NHS. However, one in six people in the UK is low on this nutrient, which plays an important role in the efficient functioning of the immune system. While we tend to get all the vitamin D we need from sunlight between April and September in the UK, it’s important to top up our levels from food sources. Good sources include oily fish (such as sardines, salmon, mackerel and herring), egg yolks, red meat, liver, fortified spreads, and cereals.

Don’t overdo it

Having a cold or the flu isn’t an excuse to overeat. After your body has taken what energy it needs from food, it will store the excess as fat.

Avoid alcohol

Alcohol is dehydrating, and may make you feel more tired. Research also suggests that it has an impact on your body’s ability to fight infections.

Cold and flu relief

While it's good to know the facts about the adage 'feed a cold, starve a fever', if you're still struggling to fight off cold and flu symptoms, our expert guide on how to treat colds and the flu can help. Take Night Nurse or Night Nurse Capsules to help relieve cold and flu symptoms and get restful sleep at night.

Top tips to prevent cold and flu symptoms