When I was young, there was nothing better than coming down with a cold, because it meant that I would be pampered (beyond normal) by my mom. She would set me up in front of the TV with a blanket, the remote, a big bowl of soup, and a pile of toast. If things were really bad, she would even give me a glass of ginger ale. Her words still ring in my ears: “Feed a cold, starve a fever.”
The old adage can be linked to a passage in a 1574 dictionary authored by Englishman John Withal that read, “Fasting is a great remedy of fever.” But the saying’s true origin will most likely remain a mystery. The centuries-old phrase was based on a simple theory of body temperature. When someone was struck with a cold, eating was thought to increase the body’s internal heat enough to ward off the shivers, while denying the body food, or “starving a fever,” would have the opposite effect. But according to modern science, it’s rarely ever a good idea to try to starve an ailment away.
Starving a cold or a fever can hinder a person’s recovery because it deprives the immune system of the necessary energy required to fight the infection. A fever is the body’s natural response to a foreign pathogen, and the increase in internal temperature is designed to kill the offending bacteria or virus. As the body fights the infection, more calories are needed to maintain the higher internal heat. The same principle holds true for a cold. The immune system needs nourishment to function properly, and research shows that malnutrition makes it more difficult for the body to fight infections leading to colds.
But more important than feeding a cold or a fever is staying hydrated. When a cold strikes, a lack of fluids can dry up the mucus in the throat, nose, and lungs, potentially damming the sinuses. Mucus, as it turns out, is one of the body’s most potent defenses when it comes to cleaning out foreign pathogens. Drinking plenty of liquids is equally important with a fever because the body’s rise in temperature causes a loss of fluids from perspiration. Therefore, when you come down with any sort of cold, fever, or infection, it’s important to stay hydrated and eat a diet of anti-inflammatory foods like yogurt, eggs, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, and, of course, the classic chicken soup. Feed a cold and a fever, in other words.