Hippocrates famously said, “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
It’s true that food can do much more than provide energy. And when you’re sick, eating the right foods is more important than ever. Certain foods have powerful properties that can support your body while it’s fighting an illness.They may relieve certain symptoms and even help you heal more quickly.
These are the 15 best foods to eat when sick.
1. Chicken Soup
Chicken soup has been recommended as a remedy for the common cold for hundreds of years — and for good reason (1).
It’s an easy-to-eat source of vitamins, minerals, calories and protein, which are nutrients your body needs in larger quantities while you’re sick (2).
Chicken soup is also an excellent source of fluids and electrolytes, both of which are necessary for hydration if you’re making frequent trips to the bathroom.
Your body will also need even more fluids if you have a fever (3).
What’s more, one study found chicken soup to be more effective at clearing nasal mucus than any other liquid studied. This means it’s a natural decongestant, perhaps in part because it gives off hot steam (4).
Another reason for this effect is that chicken contains the amino acid cysteine. N-acetyl-cysteine, a form of cysteine, breaks apart mucus and has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects (5, 6).
Chicken soup also inhibits the action of neutrophils, which are white blood cells that may cause symptoms such as coughing and a stuffy nose.
Chicken soup’s ability to inhibit these cells could partially explain why it is so effective against some cold and flu symptoms (1).
Bottom Line: Chicken soup is a good source of fluids, calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. It is also a natural decongestant and may block cells that cause coughing and a stuffy nose.
Similar to chicken soup, broths are excellent sources of hydration while you’re sick.
They’re full of flavor and can contain calories, vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, calcium, folate and phosphorous (7, 8).
If you drink them while hot, broths also have the wonderful benefit of acting as a natural decongestant because of the hot steam (4).
Drinking broth is a good way to stay hydrated, and the rich flavors can help you feel satisfied. This is especially helpful if your stomach is unsettled and you are unable to keep down solid foods.
If you’re salt-sensitive and buy broth from the store, be sure to buy a low-sodium variety as most broths are very high in salt.
If you’re making broth from scratch, it may have even more benefits — including a higher calorie, protein and nutrient content.
Many people rave about the benefits of bone broth and claim it has many healing properties, although currently there are no studies on its benefits (8).
Read this article for more information about bone broth.
Bottom Line: Drinking broth is a delicious and nutritious way to stay hydrated, and it also acts as a natural decongestant when hot.
Garlic can provide all sorts of health benefits.
It has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries and has demonstrated antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal effects (9, 10).
It can also stimulate the immune system (11).
Few high-quality human studies have explored the effects of garlic on the common cold or flu, but some have found promising results.
One study found that people who took garlic got sick less often. Overall, the garlic group spent about 70% fewer days sick than the placebo group (12).
In another study, people taking garlic not only got sick less often, but they got better 3.5 days faster than the placebo group, on average (13).
Additionally, several studies showed that aged garlic extract supplements can enhance immune function and decrease the severity of colds and the flu (14).
Adding garlic to chicken soup or broth can both add flavor and make them even more effective at fighting off cold or flu symptoms.
More details here: How Garlic Fights Colds and The Flu.
Bottom Line: Garlic can fight bacteria, viruses and stimulate the immune system. It helps you avoid illness and recover faster when you get sick.
4. Coconut Water
Staying well-hydrated is one of the most important things you can do when sick.
Hydration is especially important when you have a fever, sweat a lot or have vomiting or diarrhea, which can cause you to lose a lot of water and electrolytes.
Coconut water is the perfect beverage to sip on when you’re sick.
Besides being sweet and flavorful, it contains glucose and the electrolytes needed for re-hydration.
Studies show that coconut water helps you re-hydrate after exercise and mild cases of diarrhea. It also causes less stomach discomfort than similar drinks (15, 16, 17).
Additionally, several studies in animals found that coconut water contains antioxidants that can fight oxidative damage and may also improve blood sugar control (18, 19, 20, 21).
However, one study found that it causes more bloating than other electrolyte beverages. It might be a good idea to begin slowly if you’ve never tried it (22).
Bottom Line: Coconut water has a sweet, delicious flavor. It provides the fluids and electrolytes you need to stay hydrated while sick.
5. Hot Tea
Tea is a favorite remedy for many symptoms associated with colds and the flu.
Just like chicken soup, hot tea acts as a natural decongestant, helping clear the sinuses of mucus. Note that tea needs to be hot to act as a decongestant, but it shouldn’t be so hot that it further irritates your throat (4).
You don’t need to worry about tea being dehydrating. Although some teas do contain caffeine, the amounts are far too small to cause any increased water loss (23).
This means that sipping on tea throughout the day is a great way to help you stay hydrated while relieving congestion at the same time.
Tea also contains polyphenols, which are natural substances found in plants that may have a large number of health benefits. These range from antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action to anti-cancer effects (24, 25, 26, 27).
Tannins are one type of polyphenol found in tea. In addition to acting as antioxidants, tannins also have antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties (28).
One study in rats found that tannic acid in black tea could decrease the amount of a common type of bacteria that grows in the throat (29).
In another study, hibiscus tea reduced the growth of avian flu in a test tube. Echinacea tea also shortened the length of cold and flu symptoms (30, 31).
In addition, several types of teas specifically developed to relieve cough or throat pain were shown to be effective in clinical studies (32, 33).
All of these effects make tea an important part of your diet when you’re sick.
Bottom Line: Tea is a good source of fluids and acts as a natural decongestant when hot. Black tea can decrease the growth of bacteria in the throat, and echinacea tea may shorten the length of the cold or flu.
Honey has potent antibacterial effects, likely because of its high content of antimicrobial compounds.
In fact, it has such strong antibacterial effects that it was used in wound dressings by the ancient Egyptians, and is still used for this purpose today (34, 35, 36, 37, 38).
Some evidence suggests that honey can also stimulate the immune system (38).
These qualities alone make honey an excellent food to eat when sick, especially if you have a sore throat caused by a bacterial infection.
Many studies show that honey suppresses coughing in children. However, remember that honey should not be given to children under 12 months old (39, 40, 41, 42, 43).
Mix about half a teaspoon (2.5 ml) of honey with a warm glass of milk, water or a cup of tea. This is a hydrating, cough-soothing, antibacterial drink (43).
Bottom Line: Honey has antibacterial effects and stimulates the immune system. It can also help relieve coughing in children over 12 months of age.
Ginger is probably best known for its anti-nausea effects.
It has also been shown to effectively relieve nausea related to pregnancy and cancer treatment (44, 45, 46, 47).
What’s more, ginger acts similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. It has also demonstrated antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-cancer effects (44, 48).
So if you are feeling nauseous or throwing up, ginger is the best food available to relieve these symptoms. Even if you aren’t nauseous, ginger’s many other beneficial effects make it one of the top foods to eat when sick.
Use fresh ginger in cooking, brew some ginger tea or pick up some ginger ale from the store to get these benefits. Just make sure that whatever you’re using contains real ginger or ginger extract, not just ginger flavor.
Bottom Line: Ginger is very effective at relieving nausea. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
8. Spicy Foods
Spicy foods like chili peppers contain capsaicin, which causes a hot, burning sensation when touched.
When high enough in concentration, capsaicin can have a desensitizing effect and is often used in pain-relieving gels and patches (49).
Many people report that eating spicy foods causes a runny nose, breaking up mucus and clearing out the sinus passages.
While few studies have tested this effect, capsaicin does seem to thin out mucus, making it easier to expel. Nasal capsaicin sprays have been used with good results to relieve congestion and itching (50, 51, 52).
However, capsaicin also stimulates mucus production, so you may just end up with a runny nose instead of a stuffed one (51).
Cough relief may be another benefit of capsaicin. One study found that taking capsaicin capsules improved symptoms in people with a chronic cough by making them less sensitive to irritation (53).
However, to achieve these results, you probably would need to eat spicy food daily for several weeks.
Additionally, don’t try anything spicy if you already have an upset stomach. Spicy food can cause bloating, pain and nausea in some people (54).
Bottom Line: Spicy foods contain capsaicin, which can help break up mucus but also stimulate mucus production. It may be effective at relieving coughing caused by irritation.
Bananas are a great food to eat when you’re sick.
They’re easy to chew and bland in flavor, but also provide a decent amount of calories and nutrients.
For these reasons, they are part of the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, toast) that is often recommended for nausea (55).
Another big benefit of bananas is the soluble fiber they contain. If you have diarrhea, bananas are one of the best foods you can eat because the fiber can help relieve diarrhea (56, 57, 58).
In fact, some hospitals use banana flakes to treat patients with diarrhea (59).
Bottom Line: Bananas are a good source of calories and nutrients. They can also help relieve nausea and diarrhea.
Like bananas, oatmeal is bland and easy to eat while providing the calories, vitamins and minerals you need when sick.
It also contains some protein — about 5 grams in a 1/2 cup (60).
Oatmeal has some other powerful health benefits, including stimulating the immune system and improving blood sugar control (61).
One rat study also showed that beta-glucan, a type of fiber found in oats, helped decrease inflammation in the gut. This could help relieve symptoms such as intestinal cramping, bloating and diarrhea (62).
However, avoid buying artificially flavored oatmeal with lots of added sugar. Instead, add a small amount of honey or fruit to provide even more benefits.
Bottom Line: Oatmeal is a good source of nutrients and easy to eat. It can stimulate your immune system, improve blood sugar control and decrease inflammation in the digestive system.
Yogurt is an excellent food to eat when sick.
It provides 150 calories and 8 grams of protein per cup. It’s also cold, which can sooth your throat.
Yogurt is also rich in calcium and full of other vitamins and minerals (63).
Some yogurts also contain beneficial probiotics.
Evidence shows that probiotics can help both children and adults get colds less often, heal faster when sick and take fewer antibiotics (64, 65, 66, 67, 68).
One study found that children taking probiotics felt better an average of two days faster, and their symptoms were about 55% less severe (64).
Some people have reported that dairy intake thickens mucus. However, several studies show that dairy intake causes no change in cough, congestion or mucus production, even among those who are sick (69).
Nonetheless, if you feel that diary products worsen your congestion, try otherfermented foods containing probiotics or a probiotic supplement instead.
Bottom Line: Yogurt is easy to eat and a good source of calories, protein, vitamins and minerals. Some yogurts also contain probiotics, which can help you get sick less often and get better faster
12. Certain Fruits
Fruits can be beneficial when sick.
They are rich sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber, which support your body and immune system (70).
Some fruits also contain beneficial compounds called anthocyanins, which are types of flavonoids that give fruits their red, blue and purple color. Some of the best sources are strawberries, cranberries, blueberries and blackberries (71).
Anthocyanins make berries excellent foods to eat when sick because they have strong anti-inflammatory, antiviral and immune-boosting effects.
Several studies found that fruit extracts high in anthocyanins can inhibit common viruses and bacteria from attaching to cells. They also stimulate the body’s immune response (72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77).
In particular, pomegranates have strong antibacterial and antiviral effects that inhibit food-borne bacteria and viruses, including E. coli and salmonella (78).
While these effects do not necessarily have the same impact on infections in the body as in the lab, they likely do have some impact.
In fact, one review found that flavonoid supplements can decrease the number of days people are sick with the cold by a whopping 40% (79).
Add some fruit to a bowl of oatmeal or yogurt for more added benefits or blend frozen fruit into a cold smoothie that soothes your throat.
Bottom Line: Many fruits contain flavonoids called anthocyanins that can fight viruses and bacteria and stimulate the immune system. Flavonoid supplements can also be beneficial.
The avocado is an unusual fruit because it is low in carbs but high in fat.
In particular, it is high in healthy monounsaturated fat, the same type of fat found in olive oil.
Avocados are also a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals (80, 81).
Avocados are a great food when sick because they provide calories, vitamins and minerals that your body needs. They’re also soft, relatively bland and easy to eat.
Because of the healthy fats avocados contain, especially oleic acid, they help to decrease inflammation while also playing a role in immune function (82, 83).
Bottom Line: Avocados are full of vitamins, minerals and healthy fats that can decrease inflammation and stimulate the immune system.
14. Leafy, Green Vegetables
It’s important to get all of the vitamins and minerals your body needs while sick, but that can be difficult to do with a typical “sick foods” diet.
Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, romaine lettuce and kale are packed full of vitamins, minerals and fiber. They are especially good sources of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and folate (84).
Dark green vegetables are also loaded with beneficial plant compounds. These act as antioxidants to protect cells from damage and help fight inflammation (85).
Leafy greens have also been used for their antibacterial properties (86).
Add spinach to an omelet for a quick, nutrient-packed, protein-rich meal. You can also try tossing a handful of kale into a fruit smoothie.
Bottom Line: Leafy green vegetables are full of fiber and nutrients that you need while sick. They also contain beneficial plant compounds.
Salmon is one of the best protein sources to eat when sick.
It is soft, easy to eat and full of the high-quality protein your body needs.
Salmon is particularly rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have strong anti-inflammatory effects (87).
Salmon is also a good source of many vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D, which many people are lacking in. Vitamin D plays a role in immune function (88).
Bottom Line: Salmon is an excellent source of protein. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, which fight inflammation and boost immune function.
Take Home Message
Resting, drinking fluids and getting proper nutrition are some of the most important things you can do to feel better and recover faster when sick.
But some foods have benefits that go beyond just providing your body with nutrients.
While no food alone can cure sickness, eating the right foods can support your body’s immune system and help relieve certain symptoms.