By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 3 March 2012)
According to doctors and other medical authorities, feeding a cold is fine, but starving a fever is a bad idea.
“Feed a cold, starve a fever” dates back to a sixteenth-century dictionary maker who recommended fasting as a fever remedy. At that time, many people believed that colds were caused by cold temperatures, and thus required “fueling up,” whereas it was thought that fevers could be cooled down by depriving them of fuel. Given the state of medicine at the time, the majority of “cures” recommended during the 1500s are unlikely to be effective.
Food and Immune Function
Reliable medical authorities assert that starving a fever is unlikely to provide benefits, and may even be harmful, because malnutrition and dehydration can significantly increase the likelihood that an illness will become life threatening, and the immune system requires healthy food to work effectively.
Thus far just one small study has provided possible support for the “starve a cold, feed a fever” claim. Dutch researchers found that the immune system may respond differently when fed than it does when starved. However, the study was very brief and involved only 6 subjects, so no conclusions can be drawn, and even if it were found that starving provides some immune benefits for fevers, the risks likely outweigh them.
Good nourishment is particularly important for fevers because a fever raises the body’s temperature, which also raises the metabolic rate, so the body needs more calories than usual. Thus, starving a fever will make it more difficult to fight an illness.
What to Feed Colds and Fevers
Solid food is often unappealing to those suffering colds or fevers, but the traditional remedy – chicken soup – is an excellent choice for both. Not only is it nourishing, but in the case of congestion, it can help to open nasal passages and make breathing easier. Liquid meals also help to prevent dehydration, as fevers tend to cause sweating.
Although most studies suggest that vitamin C will not prevent colds and flus, there is some evidence that it may shorten their duration and reduce their intensity. Drs. Oz and Roizen recommend fluids rich in vitamin C such as orange juice, as well as foods that provide flavonoids, such as cranberries, tomato sauce, and apples. In addition, they suggest eating turkey, chicken, fish, oatmeal, and bananas, which support the health of the organs that generate infection-fighting white blood cells.
To fight illness, the European Food Information Council recommends increasing overall fluid intake and eating foods high in protein such as meats and/or legumes (beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts), because illness can increase the body’s demand for protein. Other beneficial foods include those high in zinc (such as red meat and seafood), as zinc boosts the immune system. Foods rich in folic acid and beta carotene are also beneficial. Good vegetables include carrots, spinach, and broccoli.
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This article is not intended as a substitute for medical consultation or care. Health concerns should be referred to a qualified medical practitioner.
- European Food Information Council (EUFIC). (n.d.). “Frequently Asked Questions: Should You Really ‘Feed a Cold and Starve a Fever’?” EUFIC.org.
- Oz., M., & Roizen, M. (n.d.). “What Should You Eat When You Have a Cold?” ReadersDigest.com.
- Rudis, J. (reviewed November 2008 by Chwistek, M., MD). “True or False: Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever.” EBSCO Publishing.
- Snyderman, N.L., MD. (2008). Medical Myths That Can Kill You: And the 101 Truths That Will Save, Extend, and Improve Your Life. New York: Crown Publishers.