The best and worst foods to eat when you’re unwell
Uh oh… you've woken up feeling ill. What you choose to eat today can speed up your recovery, or make you feel a whole lot worse. Here are the best - and the worst - foods to eat when you're unwell.
What the body needs when you're ill
Hydration (including electrolytes)
Your priority needs to be hydration. Keep drinking - water, herbal teas, home made broth or bone broth, weak black tea - but pay attention to your electrolyte intake, too. If you've been sweating a lot, vomiting, or had diarrhoea, you must replace lost electrolytes. It's worth purchasing some dissolvable electrolyte powder or tablets to add to water.
Your appetite might have disappeared, but you do need to keep eating. Your body is fighting hard to repair, rest and recover from illness, and it can only do this by using energy. We get energy from the calories in the food and drink we consume. So keep a steady stream of nutrient-dense food coming, even if the last thing you feel like doing is eating.
Small, regular meals
It will be easier to eat small snacks at regular intervals than to sit down to three large meals a day. So try small, regular snacks or mini meals whilst you're ill, to keep the nutrients, calories and fluids flowing into your poorly system.
Coughs and colds
If your illness is in your chest, throat or nose (coughs, colds, sniffles and sneezes), try these foods to sooth and self-medicate:
Home-made broth (using bones)
Chicken soup is good for more than the soul. Proper, home-made broth, made using the bones of the carcass as well as the meat, is an amazing thing to eat when you're unwell. It's easy to eat, quick to digest, and helps hydrate you. Broth feels warming, soothing and comforting. And it packs a powerful nutrition punch, too. Use bones (chicken or beef are best) as the basis of your home-made broth and the simmering process will leach all the goodness from the bones, delivering a host of nutrients to your poorly body including the amino acids glycine and proline (which are only present in small amounts in meat), calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and potassium. You'll also get a good hit of chondroitin sulphates and glucosamine both of which ease inflammation and joint pain. The warm liquid and steam from the broth will help keep your nasal passages and throat open and moist, perfect when you're feeling stuffy.
Hot herbal tea
Ditch the caffeine when you're ill (your body doesn't need the extra stress) and turn instead to hot water with fresh lemon, peppermint tea, chamomile tea, fennel tea or green tea. Green tea is caffeinated but the benefits of the anti-oxidants and immune system support will outweigh the caffeine.
Herbs and spices
If you feel able to eat a more substantial meal, spice it up with nature's warming decongestants: chili peppers, chili flakes or chili powder, ginger root, hot sauce, horseradish, lemon and turmeric.
Stomach upset or sickness
If you're suffering with stomach upset or nausea, avoid foods which sit heavily on the stomach or take ages to digest. Make sure you keep eating, even though you may not feel up to it. Try these easily digested, soothing snacks:
Savoury biscuits, rice cakes, crackers or melba toast
You might shy away from plain starchy carbs on a typical day, but if you're suffering with a stomach upset, these simple, plain carbs might be the best choice for keeping your energy up without challenging your stomach further.
If you've been sick or had diarrhoea, you'll need to replace lost potassium. Bananas are one of nature's richest sources of potassium, and are easy to chew, swallow and digest. You could mash a small banana and try eating it on a rice cake or plain savoury biscuit.
Fresh ginger root really is great at helping to sooth upset stomachs. Chop, slice or grate the root and add it to hot water along with a slice of fresh lemon and keep drinking.
Foods to avoid when you're feeling unwell
Dairy and dairy products (milk, yoghurt, cottage cheese, cheese) tend to cause or increase inflammation in the body - not a problem on a normal day, but if you're ill the last thing you want is more mucus, more inflammation, and more joint pain. Steer clear of dairy when you're under the weather.
Oily, fatty foods
Too much fat of any kind will be a challenge for your body to digest, and will slow down the absorption of nutrients in the foods you are able to eat. So keep things light whilst you're unwell.
A little spice is good if you're suffering with a cold or congestion but don't go overboard. And steer well clear of anything spicy if your sickness is stomach, bowel or digestion based. We hope the reasons are obvious!
Sugar in all forms (table sugar, fruit juices, jams, honey, sweets, chocolate) is pretty useless to your body when it's trying to get well. You need energy but it's best to get it from starchy carbohydrates and natural, slow-release foods. Sugar will spike insulin, increase inflammation, and leave you feeling worse, and won't help your body repair itself at all.