Should You Feed a Cold and Starve a Fever?

"Feed a cold, starve a fever." The proverb dates all the way back to 1574, when a dictionary writer named John Withals wrote, "fasting is a great remedy of fever." It's believed that this old saying stemmed from the belief that eating food warmed the body during a cold, while avoiding food cooled the body when it was overheated.

Sick Woman.Flu.Woman Caught Cold. Sneezing into Tissue. Headache. Virus
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This, however, is a remedy of the past that should stay there. Starving is not recommended for treating any sickness. In fact, it can actually deprive your body of what it needs to fight off infection, delaying your recovery.

Why It Doesn't Work

When your body is combating a cold, it needs energy in the form of calories to fight off infection and recover. The same applies when you have a fever—and it may be even more important in that case.

A fever is just one of the ways your immune system fights off infection. When your body temperature is higher than normal, your immune system ramps up its production of the antibodies it needs to do its job. This rise in body temperature increases your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and causes you to burn more calories than you would otherwise.

This is why taking in calories when you're sick is so critical. They ensure that your body has enough energy to fight off infection.

What You Should Do Instead

Short-term loss of appetite is a common symptom of a number of illnesses, including colds and the flu. You may also experience fatigue and nausea.

While eating may not be high on your preference list when you're ill, consuming healthy foods and staying hydrated are important to ensuring that you recover as quickly as possible.

Focus on getting lots of fluids, even if you don't feel thirsty. Drinking liquids like water and juice not only helps you replace the fluids lost from a fever, it can also help loosen mucus and relieve congestion if you have a cold.

Hydration doesn't just come from fluid—fruits and vegetables are also great sources of water. Cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelon, and strawberries are just a few water-rich foods that can keep hydration levels up.

If your baby refuses to drink or has not urinated for several hours, contact your healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Most of the time, a cold can be managed at home with proper self-care, including making sure you're well-hydrated and eating foods that may be helpful to your recovery. However, there are times when a medical evaluation is recommended. Be mindful of how long you've been feeling unwell and whether or not your case is getting worse, and keep an eye out for certain symptoms and fever levels that warrant a trip to your doctor.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Withals J. A Short Dictionarie for Yonge Beginners Gathered of Good Authours, Specially of Columell, Grapald, and Plini. London.

  2. Clark A, Imran J, Madni T, Wolf SE. Nutrition and metabolism in burn patients. Burns Trauma. 2017;5:11. doi:10.1186/s41038-017-0076-x

  3. Hasday JD, Shah N, Mackowiak PA, Tulapurkar M, Nagarsekar A, Singh I. Fever, hyperthermia, and the lung: it’s all about context and timing. Trans Am Clin Climatol Assoc. 2011;122:34-47.

  4. Peny V, Månsson F, Resman F, Ahl J, Tham J. The usefulness of appetite and energy intake-based algorithms to assess treatment effect of a bacterial infection: An observational prospective study. PLoS One. 2017;12(10):e0186514. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186514

  5. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central.

By Kristina Duda, RN
Kristina Duda, BSN, RN, CPN, has been working in healthcare since 2002. She specializes in pediatrics and disease and infection prevention.