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Is "Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever" True?

October 19, 2016
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Thanks to modern medicine and the introduction of 21st century scientific research, many of the old wives’ tales once held in high esteem have been debunked. Eating carrots will not magically improve your eyesight, coffee does not have the ability to stunt your growth, nor does feeding a cold or starving a fever help you out—unless, of course, you wish to prolong your illness. Refusing your body its nutrients in order to treat a sickness is ill-advised and stems from non-scientific assumptions about the human body made centuries ago. The idea was that when a person had a cold their internal body temperature was literally becoming colder and thus needed some sort of food to warm it up. Conversely, when someone suffered from a fever and an increasing body temperature the opposite conclusion was assumed. Today, we know that these facts are not true, but unfortunately the old saying is occasionally still believed and followed. This can lead to dangerous effects on a sick body, especially that of a sick child. So how does one nutritionally combat illness and what are the best food options with which to do so? When a person is fighting an illness their body is working overtime. Therefore, the body’s metabolic rates increase exponentially as it uses more calories and energy to heal itself and fight the virus or infection. The loss of calories and electrolytes requires some sort of replenishment—definitely not starvation. Dehydration is also a concern, and doctors recommend a 20-30% increase in fluid uptake no matter what the illness. These guidelines are especially important when it comes to sick children, as their bodies do not have the fat stores available for emergency replenishment that adults’ bodies do. They are also often unable to communicate when they are feeling hungry or thirsty, so being aware of what they are consuming while ill is an important measure to consider. So is it dangerous not to eat when you just aren’t feeling hungry, but you’re also sick? Not necessarily. In fact, some illnesses naturally suppress appetite in order to conserve the body’s energy. Furthermore, it’s certainly not advisable to force-feed yourself. It’s simply not logical to force food down when experiencing symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea. Adults can safely wait to eat until hunger pangs occur, but hydrating—in the form of water or an electrolyte-rich sports drink—is strongly suggested whether or not you are feeling parched. Now that we are aware of the benefits of feeding the body while sick, it’s important to evaluate just what needs to be eaten in order to get better sooner. The old staple of chicken soup, or some sort of broth, is actually one of the best bets when it comes to feeding that cold—or that fever. Soup generally has a high sodium content great for replenishing electrolytes, warmth to breakdown mucus and clear sinuses, and ample calories to give your body its energy back. Doctors recommend staying away from foods that are high in saturated fat due to their ability to disrupt the body’s levels of good and bad bacteria. High-fiber, Vitamin A and C, and antioxidant rich foods are suggested when trying to recover from the flu or a common cold. So is there absolutely no truth to that old wives’ tale? Perhaps, at least for rats, there may be some. A recent study has found that when withholding food from rats with both viral and bacterial infections, the former died but the bacteria-infected rats survived. Yale University immunobiology professor Ruslan Medzhitov moves to suggest that the phrase "feed a virus, starve a bacteria" may then hold more truth than its forerunner. Further research has yet to be done on humans however, so for now, keeping eat and get well soon.
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