For many of us, memories of childhood sick days include a caregiver wrapping us in a blanket and feeding us classic “sick” foods and drinks like white bread toast and ginger ale. And as grown-ups, we may be likely to reach for those same things when a cold, flu, or stomach virus hits. The bad news: While well-intentioned, some of the most recognized under-the-weather foods and drinks could actually do more harm than good.
Nutrition science has come a long way since any of our childhoods. Now, a more current understanding of what really helps the body bounce back from illness has shed light on which foods to avoid (and which make for better choices) when you’re sick. Here are five foods and drinks dietitians say to steer clear of.
1. Ginger ale (and other sodas)
Of the most frequently dosed drinks for sickness, ginger ale just might top the list of foods and drinks to avoid when you’re not well, though there’s no doubt this beverage choice comes with positive intent. After all, raw ginger root has been linked with quelling inflammation and reducing nausea. Look at the average ginger ale soda’s ingredient list, though, and you probably won’t find any legit ginger. What you will find? A whole lot of sugar, typically in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
“Ginger in its natural form does have some cold and flu benefits,” says dietitian Carrie Gabriel, M.S., R.D., founder of Steps2Nutrition. “But while a cold, bubbly soda might sound nice when your stomach is churning or your throat is aching, in general, carbonated, sugary soft drinks have little to none of the nutrients or electrolytes our bodies need to fight off sickness.”
For better results with nausea and inflammation, Gabriel suggests brewing a warm ginger tea. (You can buy the bagged stuff or simply peel a slice of ginger and steep it in hot water.)
2. White bread
Toast makes up the “T” in the so-called “BRAT diet”, an acronymic eating plan that’s often used for stomach illness. But whether or not that toast helps you feel any better may be dependent on the type of bread you use.
“While white bread is high in carbs and low in nutrients, depending on how sick a person is, sometimes they just need to eat what they can handle,” says Gabriel. “Whole grains take more energy to digest and make our digestive system more tired, so [for stomach illness] white bread is probably a good alternative.”
That said, when you’re down with other types of sickness, don’t reach for white bread. “You’re better off choosing a product made with whole grains because it hasn’t been stripped of nutrients or the fiber that helps keep our body regular and helps us thrive,” Gabriel notes. Some research has even linked B vitamins, which are abundant in whole grains, to stronger immune function. Fiber, meanwhile, is known for its positive effects on the microbiome, which plays a major role in immune health.
3. Spicy foods
All plugged up? Folklore suggests that eating a hot chili pepper or some zippy salsa will clear your nose in a jiffy. Some studies have even indicated that capsaicin, the active ingredient in peppers, could help with rhinitis (the inflammation of nasal membranes). However, loading up on strongly flavored foods comes with a downside. “Spicy foods may feel like the quickest route to clearing up stuffed nasal passages, but they could lead to gastrointestinal woes if you’re not accustomed to eating those types of foods,” says dietitian Bonnie Taub-Dix, R.D.N., creator of Better Than Dieting.
If you do decide to try a spicy meal to loosen mucus, Taub-Dix recommends washing it down with plenty of fluids. “It’s often hydration (especially warm beverages) that helps to clear up a stuffy nose,” she says. This is because the fluids help keep sinus membranes hydrated and mucus mobile (so that it can drain out, rather than stuff you up). Try a cozy cup of tea or bowl of soup.
You’re probably not hitting up happy hour when you’re down with the flu, but if your 5 PM routine usually calls for a glass of wine or a beer, it’s best to defer until you’re well again. “Alcohol dehydrates the body and weakens the immune system, so it is definitely a no-no in my book when you are sick and trying to recover from a cold or flu,” says Gabriel. Maybe an obvious point, but one worth repeating nonetheless.
When you’re lying zombie-like on the couch, it’s only natural to reach for sweet comfort foods to help you feel a little better. And take heart! For a bit of edible consolation, it’s probably fine to include an occasional treat. Dark chocolate, for example, comes with antioxidative properties.
A steady stream of sweets, though, might make you feel worse, not better, as their quick hit of simple carbs does a number on your blood sugar. “Foods that are high in added sugar could make you feel temporarily energized, but soon after you consume them you could feel like going back to bed,” says Taub-Dix.
Besides their impact on energy levels, Taub-Dix says that sweets have another drawback. “My concern, especially when you’re not feeling well, is that sugary foods (which may seem comforting at the time) could be replacing other foods that could bring more benefits,” she says. “You may not feel like having a salad, but try to reach for more nutritious types of comfort foods, like veggie soup, that could make you feel better while also promoting healing.”