5 Nutrition Tips When You’re Sick

If you have kids, you know it’s coming: one of your Littles is going to bring home that first cold of the new school year that’s going to knock you on your behind. And you also know you don’t get to take a sick day from parenting (who came up with that rule, by the way? Boo!). So you dope up on cold meds and hope it passes quickly. But there are some things you can do from a nutrition perspective to help your body out. Here are my top 5 tips for fueling your body when you’re sick:

  1. Drink your fluids. Many times when we’re sick we don’t feel like taking in much of anything. And it’s ok to not eat a whole lot (or not at all) for a while when you’re feeling like crud. But it’s not ok to skimp on hydration! Your body’s immune system is trying hard to fight whatever’s got you down, and in order to do that, it needs to be well hydrated. Sickness means extra mucus production (to get rid of those offending germs), and that means your body’s need for fluids is increased. A good rule of thumb for hydration when you’re well is to take in the equivalent number of ounces of half your body weight (in pounds). For example, a 150 pound person should aim for 75 ounces of fluids throughout the day. When you’re sick, try to get at least this amount. More is better, especially if you are also dealing with diarrhea or vomiting. Fruit juices (100% fruit), milk, and water contribute to your hydrating needs as do clear soups and broths.
  2. Think about electrolytes. If you have diarrhea and/or vomiting, it’s time to think about your electrolyte needs in addition to fluid intake. Sodium, chloride, and potassium (collectively, electrolytes) transmit nerve (or electrical) impulses in your body. They also help regulate fluid balance in and out of your body’s cells, as well as help your muscles (such as the heart) contract and relax. It’s especially important to replenish electrolytes when you’re sick. Sports drinks are one option, but keep in mind that in addition to electrolytes, they contain significant amounts of simple sugars. If you’re drinking them in large quantities, you can end up with GI distress (and worse diarrhea). An option for replenishing electrolytes without the simple sugar addition is to add electrolyte tablets to your water. There are many options out there, most of them designed for endurance sports. Nuun Hydration is just one option. Gu™ Energy gives you an option of tablets to mix with water or capsules to swallow.
  3. Eat when you feel like it. When you’re sick, don’t worry about scheduled meals and snacks. Eat when you feel like it, and don’t when you don’t. It’s more important to listen to your body’s signals during this time than it is to stick to family dinners. Your energy level will go up and down throughout the day, so go with the flow. If you’re feeling awful and dizzy at 7am, don’t force yourself to eat breakfast. You might feel more inclined to eat after being up for a few hours. And if you can only get a few bites in, don’t worry about eating a full meal. For some, keeping steady blood glucose levels when sick helps with the nausea and vomiting, so it’s totally ok to graze throughout the day, if that’s what you feel like.
  4. Eat what you can tolerate. You’ve probably heard of the BRAT diet. BRAT stands for Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, and Toast. The BRAT diet has been around for a long time, and the idea is to eat non-offensive, easily digested foods when you’re sick to give the gut some time to rest and reduce the amount of stool produced. And while the BRAT diet can definitely help with these things, it is nutritionally lacking in fiber, protein, fat, and micronutrients. The best advise when choosing foods when you’re sick is to eat what you can tolerate, with the goal of getting back to a normal, balanced diet as quickly as possible. You don’t need to avoid any foods unless they make your symptoms worse. Eat what feels ok, and aim to get back to a balanced intake with lots of whole grains and fruits and veggies as soon as your body can tolerate it. 
  5. Don’t fall for too much supplement hype. There’s been a lot of talk about the power of vitamin C when it comes to shortening the duration of the common cold. So how much of it is true? Research has shown that when normal doses of vitamin C are taken regularly before a cold, the duration and symptoms of the cold may be slightly reduced. There is no evidence that taking large doses of vitamin C has any impact, nor is there evidence that taking vitamin C once you have the cold will do anything for you. So if you’ve been eating a balanced diet with adequate vitamin and mineral content, you’ve done all you can. You won’t benefit from popping vitamin C pills while you’re sick. The best thing you can do is to focus on the 4 steps above to help your body fight what ails you.

We are on week 4 of the school year, with one kid in third grade, one in second, and the last now in Kindergarten, and I already got hit with a bad head cold a few days ago. As I was typing this post, I got a call from the school nurse, letting me know that kid #1 is down for the count as well. So we will be doubling down on hydration this week and pushing all the fruits and veggies. The minions will love it! 

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