Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever – How to Eat Your Way Back to Health

You’re probably familiar with this old English proverb. “Feed a cold, starve a fever” is a concise way to say the following:

  • When you’ve got a cold, you should eat (and drink) a lot in order to get better.
  • If you have a fever, you can bring it down if you avoid eating.

The first time this adage was recorded in a dictionary was back in 1547.

It’s fascinating to look at the reasoning behind this advice. The idea was to regulate body temperature based on what you eat. People used to assume that eating would give the fever additional fuel or energy. Eating less while they were feverish was believed to keep the body’s energy levels and the fever down.

It’s clear that this was based on a flawed understanding of how fever works. But is there any truth to it? Let’s look at the best kind of diet when you’re sick.

Evidence in Favor of This Saying

In 2002, a group of Dutch scientists argued that “feed a cold, starve a fever” might be worth taken seriously.

Here is how they explained it:

  • Eating Increases Your Gamma Interferon Levels

Research shows that gamma interferon has an important role in your body’s immune response to viruses. They are still working on ways to improve the levels of this substance in your blood.

The Dutch study showed that consuming meals had a very significant positive effect on gamma interferon production. While drinking water is crucial for other reasons, it doesn’t impact the levels of this substance in your body.

Hence, there is a solid scientific reason to “feed a cold”. It gives your immune system a boost and makes it easier to deal with viruses. Remember that the common cold is a form of viral infection.

  • Fasting Boosts Your Interleukin-4 Levels

What about the other half of the adage? Did the Dutch team really prove you need to “starve a fever”?

They found that going without food for a while boosts your interleukin-4 production. Interleukin-4 is another substance that improves your immune responses. It has a strong anti-inflammatory effect and could help your body deal with bacterial infections that come with a fever.

To summarize, eating boosts your immunity against viruses, while fasting has an anti-inflammatory effect. This makes it seem like it’s a good idea to follow that old advice. But there are some other concerns that the Dutch study didn’t take into account.


Other scientists argue that it’s better to adopt the philosophy “feed a cold, and also feed a fever”.

Eating well when you have a cold is a great piece of advice. Your gamma interferon levels will grow, and you’ll also have more energy. Exhaustion is one of the consequences of having a cold, and you should do all you can to curb its effects.

When it comes to fever, the Dutch study didn’t go into what caused the fever in the first place. In many cases, viral infection is to blame, so eating well will ultimately help your body battle the fever. While fasting does have an anti-inflammatory effect, it’s less useful than the immunity boost you get from the increased gamma interferon production.

But there’s also another important reason to eat well when you have a fever. When your body temperature is higher than average, your metabolism speeds up. This burns up calories, which means you need to eat more than usual to keep your strength up.

Why Is Your Appetite Low When You’re Sick?

If you have a cold or a fever, you might not feel like eating anything. Being sick lowers your appetite because of the chemicals your body uses to combat the infection. These chemicals also cause you to feel fatigued and irritable.

If you’ve only been sick for a few days, it’s not a problem to follow your appetite. There’s a chance that the anti-inflammatory effect will help you get better.

But if your symptoms last for more than a few days, you need to make the effort to eat regularly. It’s very important to protect yourself from exhaustion and boost the levels of gamma interferon in the body.

Drinking Is Crucial During Cold and Fevers

Even if you decide to go without food for a while, you can’t skip drinking liquids.

Dehydration can only worsen the symptoms of your cold. The mucus in your nose and throat will harden. Without running mucus, your recovery process slows down considerably.

If you’ve got a fever, drinking becomes even more important. You might not be able to notice the warning signs of severe dehydration. Set up a hydration schedule and avoid coffee or alcohol.

Diet Ideas

What should you eat when you’re sick? These meal options are great for colds and fevers alike.

  • Chicken Soup and Broths

There is a reason why chicken soup is famous for its restorative power. While it can’t cure you, it will help you restore lost calories and keep you safe from dehydration. Additionally, it’s rich in minerals and vitamins that can improve your immune reactions. The protein helps with keeping your strength up.

Broths are useful for all the same reasons. It’s best to eat the soup or broth while it’s still hot, as this can have a natural decongestant effect.

  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

Bananas are particularly helpful when you’re sick. They can improve your energy levels and they’re rich in useful minerals. You should also consider berries and avocados for their anti-inflammatory effect. Citrus fruit can give your immune system a boost, especially pomegranates.

Don’t forget leafy greens either, which may have an anti-bacterial effect.

  • Spicy Food

If you don’t have any digestive issues, opt for spicy foods. They can improve mucus production and speed up your recovery. However, it’s important to follow your own appetite. If the idea of eating something spicy seems unappealing, don’t worry about this option.

  • Salmon

You need to choose protein-rich foods, so it’s a good idea to consume meat while you’re sick. Salmon is the healthiest possible option, as it’s rich in vitamins and can battle inflammation.

  • Probiotics

Natural probiotics can help soothe any digestive problems but they can also help with your fever. So don’t forget yogurt while you’re sick.


“Feed a cold, starve a fever” isn’t the best way to go. While it does have some scientific backing, it’s better to avoid fasting when you’re feverish. It’s also important to choose the right diet, as it could aid your recovery.