If you found yourself feeling sick, there’s a good reason why. What’s being coined a “tripledemic” of COVID, the flu and RSV has swept through the U.S. in the wake of the years of isolation and reduced social interactions following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Naturally, you’re probably sick of being, well, sick, and you’re looking for ways to optimize your health and bolster your immune system. As it turns out, one of the best lines of defense when it comes to preventing illness is by maintaining proper nutrition. In fact, consuming a balanced and varied diet can help prevent a host of chronic diseases, maintain a healthy weight, support our immune system, and promote overall well-being, explains Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness. “The food we eat provides our bodies with the nutrients and energy needed to function properly, repair damaged tissues, and support the immune system,” he says. “When our immune system is strong and healthy, it can better defend against infections and diseases.”
Even (and especially) once you do fall sick, it pays to eat healthy, as nutrient-dense, fresh food can give your body the nutrients it needs to fight off infection and heal itself faster, explains Jerry Bailey, D.C., LA.c., certified nutritionist, acupuncturist, chiropractic, and functional medicine physician at Lakeside Holistic Health. “A balanced diet is especially important during illness because your body’s ability to absorb vitamins and minerals is typically not at 100 percent,” he says. “Additionally, certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties which can reduce inflammation throughout the body and even combat specific illnesses.”
When it comes to eating well for illness prevention, the key is to optimize your diet so that it is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and micronutrients.
Best: Citrus fruits
This is probably no surprise to you, as you’ve probably been told before to sip on orange juice when you feel sick. There’s some truth to this theory, as citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits are high in vitamin C, which has been shown to bolster immunity. “Drinking fresh-squeezed citrus juice (such as orange juice or grapefruit juice) is an easy and quick way to get lots of vitamin C, but it’s even more beneficial to consume this fruit in its whole form or blended into a smoothie, so people don’t miss out on all the fiber which helps with blood sugar balance,” functional dietitian Jenna Volpe, R.D.N., L.D., C.L.T. says. “Just 2-3 citrus fruits or other vitamin C-rich fruit daily can go a long way to help optimize a person’s recovery when they are sick.”
Candy and cakes might make you feel good in the moment, but they do no favors for your health, especially when you’re sick. Sweet treats are mainly composed of sugar, which promotes inflammation and even can weaken your immune system, explains dietitian and National Media Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Roxana Ehsani, R.D. “When you’re sick you want to do everything to support your immune system and help it get back to being healthy and strong and prevent further illnesses. Instead of eating candy which is nutrient-poor during times of sickness, instead try to eat some fruit,” she says. “You could even consume no-sugar added dried fruit if you are craving something sweet.”
Best: Bone broth
It might sound strange, but if you’re a chicken soup lover, you’re sipping on bone broth. And there’s a good reason as to why it makes you feel better when you’re sick. “In addition to supporting a healthy gut lining (due to being high in gut-healing amino acids or building blocks of protein), bone broth is also easy to digest, gentle on the body, and chicken soup is an easy way to infuse various types of antioxidant-rich veggies, herbs, and spices for immunity,” says Volpe.
Worst: Fast foods
When you’re sick, the last thing you want to do is cook, but avoid getting fast food at all costs. Not only does it tend to be salty, greasy, and not very nutrient-dense, but research, including one study published in the journal Nutrition, has shown that it wreaks havoc on our immune system.
Best: Spices like garlic and ginger
“Garlic contains sulfur-containing compounds that have antimicrobial and antibacterial properties and helps to boost immunity and fight off infection,” says Volpe. Ginger, most famous for its nausea-fighting abilities, can also be a great food to eat when you’re sick. “Ginger has anti-inflammatory properties and can also help to boost immunity, soothe the digestive system and also reduce nausea and vomiting,” says Dr Bailey.
Worst: Fried foods
They may be satisfyingly delicious, but fried foods are not ideal when you’re feeling under the weather. This is mainly due to their high-fat content, which can be hard to digest and can leave you with an upset stomach or heartburn, explains Dr. Bailey. “These foods are high in fat and oil which can be difficult to digest when your body is already weak and exhausted from trying to fight off an infection,” he says. “Eating fatty foods can lead to indigestion and make your body feel even worse.” Instead of greasy fried foods, he recommends opting for baked or steamed versions of your favorite dishes as a healthier alternative. “Baking and steaming are healthier methods of cooking that help to retain more of the nutritional value of the food,” he adds.
Best: Veggies, especially dark leafy greens
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and collard greens are all rich sources of nutrients, including vitamin C, A, K, folate, iron, potassium and calcium, notes Ehsani. “They are easy to add to soups or stews when sick too, let’s say you get a cup of chicken noodle soup from a store you can always add a handful of greens to your soup to increase its nutritional value,” she says. Other ways she suggests enjoying greens is by lightly sauteeing or steaming them or trying them in between a sandwich or sub.
Worst: Dairy products
When your body’s fighting an infection, dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt, should be last on your list of foods to eat because they contain bacteria that can lead to increased mucus production, explains Dr. Bailey. “Instead of dairy products, focus on getting enough fluids from sources like herbal teas, soups, and freshly squeezed juices that don’t contain dairy,” he says. “When fighting an infection, try to stay away from dairy products if possible or opt for a plant-based alternative like almond milk or coconut yogurt instead.”