When you’re under the weather, the last thing you want is to eat something that’s going to make you feel worse. But what if chicken soup or crackers don’t sound palatable, and you’re craving ice cream or a glass of wine? It depends on what’s wrong with you, experts say. Here’s what to eat and what to avoid to feel better.
1. Sore Throat
Certain foods can coat a sore throat and soothe the pain, says Lauren Slayton, R.D., the founder of Foodtrainers.com.
BEST FOODS: Combine peppermint tea (lukewarm, not hot)—which has analgesic and anesthetic effects—and manuka honey, which is known for its wound-healing properties. Soft, creamy foods, such as cream soups, mashed potatoes, yogurt, scrambled eggs and custards, are also soothing.
WORST FOODS: Avoid hot liquids and hard, scratchy foods such as potato chips, nuts and granola. The acidic juices in raw fruits and vegetables, as well as orange juice, grape juice and lemonade, can also irritate a sore throat.
2. Digestive Issues
For diarrhea caused by a stomach virus or a meal that didn’t agree with you, try the BRAT diet (see below), says James Lee, M.D., a gastroenterologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “Many different things can cause diarrhea, such as Crohn’s disease or colitis,” he says, so see your doctor if symptoms continue for longer than two weeks, or sooner if signs of dehydration appear or diarrhea is accompanied by fever, blood, severe pain or severe nausea and vomiting.
BEST FOODS: The BRAT diet consists of bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Oatmeal, boiled potatoes, saltine crackers and baked chicken or turkey without skin are also safe bets.
WORST FOODS: Sugarless candy and gum containing sorbitol or other artificial sweeteners, which aren’t digestible and can trigger diarrhea. Other foods that can cause gas and bloating include onions, apples, broccoli, cabbage and beans. Dairy, as well as alcohol and caffeine, may also aggravate diarrhea.
Constipation can occur when you’re not eating enough fiber-rich whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which stimulate digestion. “Adults need between 25 and 30 grams of fiber a day,” says Lee.
BEST FOODS: High-fiber whole-grain breads, nuts, beans, prunes, oatmeal, flaxseed, broccoli, pears and apples. Drinking six to eight glasses of water a day also helps get things moving, Lee says.
WORST FOODS: Chocolate, dairy products, iron supplements, narcotics (pain medications) and some blood and anti-depression medications may worsen constipation.
4. Upset Stomach
Feeling queasy makes all foods sound unappealing, but the right ones can ease symptoms by calming stomach acids, Lee says: “In general, keep food portions small and odors to a minimum.”
BEST FOODS: Saltine crackers or pretzels can help, as will small quantities of dry toast or cereal. Ginger or lemon tea, fresh or frozen lemon slices, and peppermint also work.
WORST FOODS: Greasy, spicy and oily foods, as well as caffeine, alcohol and carbonated drinks, can make nausea worse.
5. Body Aches
Foods that ease muscle aches depend on the specific reason for the aches, says Kristine Arthur, M.D., of MemorialCare Medical Group in Laguna Woods, California. “For general muscle aches, foods containing magnesium or calcium may help ease soreness,” she says.
BEST FOODS: Foods that contain magnesium include nuts, bananas, beans, leafy greens and avocados. Foods high in calcium, such as canned salmon, yogurt, dark leafy greens and orange juice fortified with calcium, also lessen muscle cramping and pain.
WORST FOODS: Anything that dehydrates you can worsen muscle aches, says Arthur—particularly alcohol and caffeine.
Dehydration is one of the leading causes of headaches, says Arthur, so it’s best to treat that cause first and see if it relieves the pain.
BEST FOODS: Water and other fluids are your best bet. “Drink a bottle of water and wait 20 minutes to see if you feel better,” Arthur says. Caffeine is known for drying you out, but ironically, it can help in small doses. “But for each cup of tea or coffee, drink an equal amount of water to avoid dehydration,” Arthur adds.
WORST FOODS: Headache-triggering foods include artificial sweeteners, MSG (found in soy sauce and other sauces), aged cheeses (blue, Stilton) that contain tyramine, chocolate, red wine, hot dogs, deli meats and dried fruit. MSG is metabolized to glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain, Arthur explains. Tyramine is linked to increased blood pressure, which can trigger headaches.
Earaches typically accompany other symptoms, says Arthur, “so they’re not correlated with any food in general.” Since they occur most often with upper respiratory infections, however, foods that clear up congestion can help earaches as well.
BEST FOODS: Clear fluids and chicken soup ease congestion by loosening up mucus in nasal passages. Omega-3s, found in salmon and nuts, decrease inflammation, and vitamin C, found in dark leafy greens, berries and citrus, boosts the immune system, says Arthur.
WORST FOODS: Dairy can thicken phlegm and worsen congestion, with the exception of yogurt, which contains probiotics, says Arthur. “Stay away from processed and packaged foods, too, which increase inflammation and lengthen the recovery process,” she says.
8. Persistent Itching
A rash could be a symptom of an allergy. “Keep a detailed food journal to look for links to foods that seem to trigger a rash,” Arthur suggests.
BEST FOODS: Foods rich in omega-3s, such as fatty fish (salmon, sardines) and walnut and flaxseed oils, as well as foods high in protein are all important for skin health, says Arthur: “Skin is made up of proteins, so a diet adequate in protein is necessary for skin protein synthesis.”
WORST FOODS: The most common foods that cause itching are nuts, chocolate, fish, tomatoes, eggs, berries, soy, wheat and milk, says Debra Jaliman, M.D., a dermatologist and the author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
9. A Runny Nose
Aside from taking a steamy shower, Slayton suggests drinking warm tea—it may not slow down the drip of a runny rose, but the soothing hot liquid will make you feel better.
BEST FOODS: Try Wakaya ginger tea, says Slayton. Ginger contains antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that may help clear up a cold faster than just waiting it out. “Apple cider and lemon in water works well too,” she says.
WORST FOODS: Spicy foods can cause an immediate runny nose (which then turns into congestion), and alcohol may do the same.
A cold or flu can irritate and inflame blood vessels in your nose, making it hard to breathe. Aside from inhaling steam from a hot shower and using a humidifier, if you’re stopped up due to mucus, some foods can help.
BEST FOODS: Slayton recommends golden milk, which includes turmeric, a spice known for its anti-inflammatory properties. Put 2 cups of coconut milk in a saucepan with 1 teaspoon dried turmeric, 1 teaspoon dried ginger, a dash of black pepper and honey to taste. Bring to a simmer, allow to sit for 10 minutes and serve warm.
WORST FOODS: Skip dairy, spicy foods and sugar, all of which can aggravate symptoms.