Tip 6: Foods to avoid if you’ve got a cold or flu

Plus some long-term diet tips!

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Immune System Expert
Ask Dr. Jen Tan

Diet and your immune system

As with many conditions, diet can play a big role in your recovery from colds and flu, as well as the long-term support of the immune system against future infection. While you might be craving comfort foods while you’re feeling unwell, this is often not the best idea! 

So what foods should you avoid when you’ve got a cold or flu?

1. Dairy

Dairy is notorious for increasing mucus production and thickening the mucus your produce – which is the last thing you need when your nose is already blocked up! It can also trigger inflammation which can worsen the immune response and result in more severe symptoms. 

Try cutting out dairy for a week while you recover, or opt for dairy alternatives such as almond milk or soya yoghurt. 

In the long-term, you probably won’t need to cut out dairy altogether – however, since it can be quite high in saturated fats and a trigger for inflammation, it’s important not to consume it in excess.

2. Processed foods

I know that ready meals might be tempting when you’re not feeling so great, but I’d recommend opting for something fresher!

Processed foods are typically high in fat and salt, whilst low-fat versions tend to be full of sugar instead! These types of food often trigger inflammation, plus, they don’t tend to be very nutritious, so won’t provide your body with the nutrients it needs to get better.

Avoid processed meats like bacon and sausages, sugary cereal bars, tinned foods, premade sauces, ready meals and ‘instant’ foods like pot noodles. Opt for fresh, home-cooked meals where you can! This is definitely something you should try to do long-term as well, as processed foods can contribute to a number of health conditions and will certainly have a negative impact on your immune function.

3. Alcohol

I’m guessing if you’re ill with a cold or flu you probably won’t be up for a big night out, but it’s worth mentioning alcohol anyway. Alcohol slows down your whole body – including your vital immune cells! And again, it can trigger an inflammatory response in the body. 

Alcohol will also dehydrate you (the main cause of a hangover!) which will often result in thicker, harder-to-shift mucus, and can worsen energy levels and headaches. 

If you’re looking for a comforting drink that will help rather than hinder symptoms, read my article on the best drinks to cure your cold.

If you suffer particularly badly from colds and flu during winter and know that you tend to drink a little too much, I’d really recommend cutting down as this could be at the root of your recurring infections.

4. Sugary foods

Sugar competes with vitamin C in the body, so the more sugar you eat, the less vitamin C you’ll have! And we all know how important vitamin C is for the immune system.

Plus – you guessed it – sugar can be another cause of inflammation! It can have a particularly negative effect on the gut, destroying friendly bacteria and worsening digestive issues. And did you know that around 75% of your immune cells are located in the gut?

I’d definitely recommend reducing your intake of refined white sugar long-term as well, as this nasty stuff can contribute to low-grade inflammation, poor digestion, cardiovascular problems, obesity and diabetes. If you’re struggling to give up sweet treats altogether, try opting for more natural sweeteners like honey, dates or coconut sugar.

If you’re looking for a tasty treat to cheer you up, why not try one of our simple snack recipes? These delicious Salted Caramel Bliss Balls are one of my favourites! 

5. Big meals

It’s common to lose your appetite when you’ve got a cold or flu, and there’s logical reason behind this. Your body is really busy fighting off the infection and trying to heal itself, so the last thing it needs it a huge meal to try and digest at the same time.  

If you’ve lost your appetite you might be unable to eat large meals, but if you haven’t I’d recommend trying to avoid big meals anyway. Try to eat little and often instead, and make sure the food you’re eating is highly nutritious! Soups and smoothies are great ways to get the nutrients you need without putting extra pressure on your body.

If you eat too much whilst you’ve got a cold or flu, you may experience nausea, bloating and general discomfort as your body struggles to digest the food with the little resources it has left. 

6. Fatty foods

This ties into the previous point – fatty foods can be difficult for the body to digest at the best of times, let alone when it’s trying to fight of a cold or flu infection. Foods rich in saturated fats can also worsen inflammation.

Avoid greasy, fatty foods for now and opt instead for something a bit lighter and fresher! As I’ve mentioned, soups and smoothies are great options, but you can also try small portions of rice dishes, couscous or quinoa. This light quinoa & avocado salad is highly nutritious and should feel light on your digestive system. This particular recipe only takes four simple steps as well, meaning it's not too demanding. This is ideal if your illness means you aren't up to any major cooking.

Another notable mention

So this one isn’t a food, but still something you should definitely avoid both long term and while you’re suffering from a cold or flu!

Smoking is notoriously bad for your health, but it can have particularly negative effects on the immune system and respiratory system.

The respiratory system is a well-oiled machine – mucus in the nose, airways and lungs trap dirt, bacteria and viruses, and then the little hairs that line these passages brush it up and out of your respiratory system. Thicker mucus can be coughed out if necessary.

When you smoke regularly, these hairs become clogged with dirt and tar, making it harder to remove this bacteria and virus laden mucus. Plus, the mucus itself is likely to be thicker and stickier, meaning it’s also harder to cough out. 

In an attempt to repair the damage to your lungs, the respiratory system uses up vitamin C, resulting in an overall deficiency – in fact, each cigarette is thought to remove 25mg of vitamin C from the body. This lack of vitamin C has a knock-on effect on the whole immune system, making it harder to recover from your infection and leaving you vulnerable to future infections. 

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