What to Eat if You Have Swine Flu

If you come down with swine flu, treatment should include lots fluids, and foods that will boost your immune system and help you feel better.

October 21, 2009

If you have the flu, fluids are important even if you don't feel like eating.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Tactics for preventing swine flu include practicing good hygiene and hand washing, getting a swine flu shot (unfortunately, there have been delays in shipments of the vaccine) and staying out of crowded areas like the mall or movie theater if there's an outbreak in your community. Prevention isn't a guarantee, though, as an estimated 2 million people who have been sickened by the H1N1, or swine flu, virus so far in the United States have found. For those of us who end up catching swine flu, treatment options include antiviral medication. But unless you're in a high risk group—you have a weak immune system or fall into certain age groups, for example—simple self-care will be the primary means of getting through a bout of swine flu. Along with bed rest, that means making good choices regarding your diet.

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Here are the swine flu treatment options that should be part of your meal plan:

Eat like a health nut. If you're sidelined with swine flu, now is the perfect time to trade in Twinkies and other processed foods for whole (and preferably organic) fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods are bursting with phytochemicals and other plant compounds that can boost your health, gearing your body up for a strong fight against illness. If you're sick with the flu, sometimes the last thing you want to do is eat, though. So keep these foods in reach, but let your appetite guide you. Vitamin D3 is key to immune system health, so it's also a good idea to talk to your doctor about supplementing with this vitamin.

Focus on hydration. Hydration is important for everyone, but it is an absolutely critical part of swine flu treatment, particularly because this flu causes dehydrating symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea in some patients. Even if you don't feel like eating, make sure you sip on water, juices, and Gatorade to stay hydrated. Caretakers should likewise be sure that their sick charges take plenty of liquids. "Around 90 percent get fever and 10 to 20 percent of people get nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea, so fluids and hydration are key," stresses doctor and registered dietician Christine Gerbstadt, MD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Salty broths [but not in excess] help during fever to keep thirst active. Juices, smoothies with protein powder, yogurt, and fruit can support nutrition until the appetite returns."

If you or a loved one do become ill from swine flu, make sure you read our story on monitoring and treating swine flu symptoms.

Dilute some liquids. Liquids rich in vitamins and minerals are crucial to drink when you have the flu, whereas too much sugar can cause diarrhea when you're sick. Try diluting juices, ginger ale, and other sugar-sweetened drinks with water before drinking. Allow soft drinks to go flat before drinking so the bubbles don't cause stomach gas.

Eat to ease a sore throat. A sore throat is a common characteristic of the swine flu. If your throat hurts, you'll want to avoid dairy products; they can stir up mucus and make it even harder to swallow. Orange juice may irritate an inflamed throat. For a Russian home remedy that can ease sore throats, mix 1 tablespoon of pure horseradish, 1 teaspoon of honey, and 1 teaspoon of ground cloves in a glass of warm water and stir. Sip it slowly, and continue to stir as the horseradish settles. If the thought of this drink is too gross for you, try using it as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. Or stick to warm broth or tea.

For those who are still healthy with a full appetite, consider modifying your diet to include foods that boost your immune system.

• Pump up your immune system with pro- (and pre-) biotics. Things like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables are good sources of probiotics, beneficial bacteria that help alleviate symptoms of diarrhea brought on by viruses or antibiotics. Foods rich in probiotics help strengthen gut immunity, explains Dr. Gerbstadt. But a lesser-known sidekick—prebiotics—helps maintain beneficial probiotic levels in the gut. Some prebiotics are rich in inulin, a type of fiber found naturally in onions, garlic, agave, wild yams, and Jerusalem artichokes.

• Start building strong immunity in your blood. Protein, zinc, and vitamin C help build immune cells; lean meat, chicken, fish that’s low in toxins and harvested in a sustainable way, skim milk, vegetables, fruit, and whole grains are good sources. See today's story on high-zinc foods for recipes which add that mineral to your meal plan. For other recipe ideas, visit our Whole Grain Guide..

• Finally, swallow a dose of reality. This virus is very different from the seasonal flu because it is disproportionately affecting young people, and in some cases causing severe complications or even death. "The fatalities are not just 'sickly' older people and babies," says Dr. Gerbstadt. "All are at risk for serious effects in a rapid time frame." While more than 99 percent of people who have been infected have recovered, the lowest risk is in avoiding getting sick. Use easy methods to reduce the risk of falling ill from the novel virus. Hand washing, especially after touching body secretions like mucus, keeping the sick in a specific room most of the time, avoiding sharing foods and drinks also help reduce the risk of transmission. And though it's arriving too late for some of us, consider getting a swine-flu shot when it becomes available to your family.