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.

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. Some foods can even help relieve cold symptoms.

At the very least, get plenty of rest, focus on getting lots of fluids, and eat something small whenever you don't feel like you can tolerate full meals.

Stay Hydrated

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.

In one of the most frequently cited studies on the matter, researchers found that drinking hot chicken soup helped temporarily clear nasal congestion.

If you're not in the mood for a hot beverage, try sipping some coconut water. Besides being flavorful, it contains the electrolytes you need to stay hydrated while you're sick.

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

Choose Water-Rich Foods

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.

Eat Nutrient-Dense Foods

It's not about how much you eat, but rather what you eat. Numerous studies show that vitamin C, which is found in most citrus fruits, help reduce the length and severity of colds.

Try Spicy Foods

Loading up on spicy foods may actually help relieve cold and flu symptoms. Foods that contain ingredients like chili peppers, garlic, ginger root, and horseradish can help break up mucus and clear out your sinuses.

Be careful though—research shows that spicy foods can also cause bloating, nausea, and pain in people with stomach problems.

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.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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; 1574.

  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. Saketkhoo K, Januszkiewicz A, Sackner MA. Effects of drinking hot water, cold water, and chicken soup on nasal mucus velocity and nasal airflow resistance. Chest. 1978;74(4):408-410. doi:10.1378/chest.74.4.408

  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central. Updated 2019.

  7. Hemilä H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013;(1):CD000980. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4

  8. Hai-Long Z, Shimin C, Yalan L. Some Chinese folk prescriptions for wind-cold type common cold. Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med. 2015;5(3):135-137. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2014.11.035