Adapted from an article in Better Homes and Gardens by Karla Walsh (February 28, 2023)
Keep the tissues handy -- the average American adult deals with two to three colds each year, according to CDC estimates. The best ways to prevent a cold are regular hand washing, limiting exposure to those who are sick, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces regularly. But you can also strengthen your body’s natural defenses by way of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So what should you eat?
“There isn't a magic food that will cure a cold. There are certain foods that may help support aspects of the immune system, though, possibly resulting in the body being able to combat infection or inflammation more effectively,” explains Lauren Manaker MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and owner of Nutrition Now Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina.
Manaker and Katherine Brooking, RD, co-founder of the nutrition news company Appetite for Health in San Francisco helped determine those cold-combatting vitamins and minerals. Here are the best foods to eat when you have a cold -- each item on the list packs in as many of those immune-supporting qualities as possible per bite.
Big Picture: What Kinds of Foods Are Good for a Cold?
As a general rule, the best foods to eat when you have a cold are the same as the best foods to eat any time to reduce risk for chronic diseases and to promote a long, healthy life.
"Eating a well-rounded diet—one that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats—can help us keep all of our cells running optimally, including the cells of our immune system,” Brooking says. “To date, we don’t have an abundance of data to state definitively that specific foods will shorten the duration of a cold or help you feel better more quickly. However, there are some studies that support the benefits of certain foods to help with colds.”
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can also help the growth and maintenance of the microbiome (the diverse array of good bacteria that reside in our digestive tract), which plays a surprisingly large role in our internal immunity. In addition to promoting healthy digestion and regularity, gut health makes up about 70% of our overall immune system, UCLA Health experts confirm.
Beyond those general food categories, a few key micronutrients have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells:
Iron is a component in enzymes that are critical for immune cell function.
Sources: Red meat, beans, nuts, oysters, spinach, tofu, and fortified breakfast cereals.
Vitamin A helps protect against infections by keeping skin and tissues in the mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system healthy and strong.
Sources: Sweet potato, spinach, carrots, dairy, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, eggs.
Vitamin C stimulates the formation of antibodies as well as the production, function and movement of white blood cells.
Sources: Red and green bell peppers, citrus fruits, strawberries, kiwi, broccoli, and tomatoes.
Vitamin D helps regulate antimicrobial proteins that can directly kill pathogens.
Sources: Sunlight, fatty fish, egg yolks, fortified dairy, and mushrooms grown under UV lights.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant to protect the integrity of cell membranes from damage caused by free radicals.
Sources: Seeds, nuts, vegetable oils, peanut butter, spinach, and broccoli.
Zinc plays a role in wound healing and supports the immune response.
Sources: Oysters, beef, pork, turkey, shrimp, lentils, dairy, seeds, and nuts.
Get Specific: The Best Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold
The following foods to eat when you have a cold are soothing, comforting, and offer some of those immune-supporting qualities mentioned above.
Eating chicken soup during an illness may sound like an old wives’ tale, Manaker admits, but there is some science that suggests that eating it during illness may offer some healing benefits. Vegetable soups, bean and veggie soups, and other similar nutrient-rich bowls count if chicken isn’t your top choice.
Related: Best-Ever French Onion Soup
“Healthy soups can possibly help lower inflammation and reduce congestion. Soup is hydrating, nourishing, and for many, holds soothing emotional value that may help us feel better psychologically,” Brooking says.
Bonus points if the soup calls for garlic on the ingredient list. “Since garlic may have antimicrobial and antiviral properties, including it in your diet when you are sick may help you feel better,” Manaker says.
Like soup, hot tea can help reduce nasal congestion. “Tea also contains polyphenols,” Brooking says. “These natural substances found in plants have a large number of potential health benefits, including antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.”
Feel free to add a drizzle of honey to sweeten your tea. According to a meta-analysis of 14 studies, “honey can reduce the frequency and severity of nighttime coughing, in some cases, even better than over-the-counter cough syrups,” Brooking says.
Boost the power of that honey by purchasing local from farmers markets or small bee farms around Mississippi (use this handy local honey finder). Not only are you supporting small businesses, but eating local honey may have the added benefit of helping relieve seasonal allergies.
In addition to being one of the most hydrating foods to promote a healthy skin and body, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, clementines, and all members of the citrus fruit family earn another accolade from Brooking and Manaker: they’re one of the best foods to eat when you have a cold. Beyond the H2O, citrus fruits deliver vitamin C and other plant compounds that help the immune system function properly, Brooking says.
One caveat: grapefruit may interfere with how your body absorbs some medicines used to control hypertension (high blood pressure), so consult your doctor or pharmacist.
Related: How to Build a Healthy Smoothie
Any fruit or vegetable with a natural blue, purple, black, or red hue likely gets that tint from anthocyanins, one of the plant-based chemicals in the flavonoid family. Brooking says that anthocyanins have strong anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and immune-boosting effects. While they’re in dozens of plant-based foods, berries have more anthocyanins than any other category of foods, the Cleveland Clinic reports.
The Bottom Line
The best Rx to feel better fast? Rest, time, and a well-balanced menu to support recovery. These nutrient-dense, hydrating, and soothing foods and drinks that deliver a dose of immune system-supporting vitamins and minerals are among the best foods to eat when you have a cold. To promote healing, limit added sugars, foods high in saturated fat, and alcohol.