What To Eat When You Have COVID-19

Nutritionists weigh in on the best (and worst) foods to eat when you have COVID-19.

By now, you probably know what to do if you have mild COVID-19: Isolate, monitor your symptoms, and seek help if symptoms become severe. What you might not know if you test positive is what to eat to start feeling well as quickly as possible.

Though, research on how specific foods may impact your recovery from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is limited. But it's well-known that a balanced, nutrient-dense diet is key to maintaining a robust immune system. 

Here's what you should know about the best and worst foods you can eat if you test positive for COVID-19.

What We Know About Diet and COVID-19

There's no research that eating certain foods will make your COVID-19 symptoms go away quickly, Toby Amidor, RD, CDN, dietician and author of The Family Immunity Cookbook, told Health

"There is no scientific evidence to make the association between eating for a healthy immune system to help lessen the duration of COVID-19," confirmed Amidor. 

But some foods (specifically, the nutrients they contain) appear to help the body mount a more successful response to invaders.

According to the Office of Dietary Supplements, vitamin D is critical to maintaining immune health. A 2017 study published in The BMJ found that vitamin D supplementation—especially in deficient participants—helped protect against acute respiratory tract infections. Other micronutrients—like vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E, among others—may also help improve immune health.

Some evidence suggests that certain macronutrients, like fiber and protein, also strengthen immunity.

Fermented foods may play a role in immune health, too. According to a 2021 study published in Cell, consuming fermented foods led to increased microbiome diversity. Your microbiome is all the microorganisms that live inside your body, like gut bacteria. Those microorganisms can impact your immune response.

That said, much of the research around diet and immunity hinges on dietary habits established before coming down with an illness. In other words, your immune system can't achieve powerhouse status overnight.

For many people, eating during a bout of COVID-19 mainly means eating well to feel well. Here are several foods to add to your grocery order if you or someone in your home has COVID-19.

Fruits and Vegetables

Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a great way to improve general and immune health. For example, fruits and vegetables high in immune-supporting vitamins C include:

  • Citrus fruit
  • Tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Green leafy vegetables

Those foods supply vital micronutrients. And many of them also give you a boost of complex carbohydrates. Carbohydrates can keep your energy levels steady throughout the day, which might be beneficial when dealing with COVID-19.

If a sore or scratchy throat means fresh fruits won't go down easily, try them blended in a smoothie. Or, if you're in the mood for something warm, consider soup. 

"Soup is a great way to sneak in veggies and is light on the stomach," dietitian Ana Reisdorf, MS, RD, told Health.

Whole Grains

The prebiotic fiber in whole grains provides "food" for healthy bacteria to flourish in the digestive system. A thriving microbiome is associated with a better-functioning immune system, according to a 2020 study published in Cell Research.

Good bacteria in the digestive tract reduce inflammation by preventing bad bacteria from growing, according to a study published in Nature Reviews Immunology in 2016.

If COVID-19 has you down for the count, try oatmeal and barley. Both contain a fiber called beta-glucan, which has anti-inflammatory properties. Since both have a naturally smooth texture, they shouldn't aggravate a scratchy throat. 

Other nutritious, high-fiber grains include:

  • Quinoa
  • Whole wheat pasta and bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown rice

Proteins

Of the three macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbs—protein is known for building muscle and repairing tissues. Protein also serves as the backbone of all your cells, including your immune cells. Some evidence suggests that protein deficiency may impair immune function and put you at greater risk of infections.

Many protein sources also contain micronutrients, said Amidor, explaining that beef gives you both. 

"Beef helps immunity because it has the mineral zinc, which is involved in many metabolic activities in your body, including the production of protein and wound healing," explained Amidor. 

Amidor, who partners with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, recommended choosing lean cuts of beef whenever possible.

Of course, beef doesn't own the market on protein and zinc: Pork, lamb, and chicken all contain sizable amounts of both. For a softer meal that requires minimal effort when your energy is zapped, toss meats in the slow cooker with a low-sugar marinade.

Plenty of plant-based options also offer protein, like beans, lentils, and tofu. What's more, those options are also good sources of fiber. But if COVID-19 is causing digestive issues, you may want to avoid high-fiber foods that may aggravate bloating and diarrhea.

Dairy

You might have heard the age-old myth that dairy triggers excess phlegm production and should be avoided when you're sick. But old wives' tales aside, experts recommend it—even if you have COVID-19. 

Yogurt is a good starting place. 

"Yogurt is one of my top foods to boost immunity because it contains live, active cultures that act as probiotics," said Amidor. 

Amidor added that some probiotic strains had been linked to boosted immunity and healthy digestive systems.

Since yogurt and yogurt-based foods like smoothies and shakes typically have a mild flavor and a cooling texture, you're likely to tolerate them well while ill.

But if yogurt isn't your go-to, milk can help support a healthy immune system. 

"One cup of milk provides 13 essential nutrients, including vitamins A and D, protein, selenium, and zinc, all of which are important to normal immune function," noted Amidor.

Beverages

If your particular version of COVID-19 includes a fever or diarrhea, it's easy to get dehydrated

Dehydration doesn't feel good under the best of circumstances. But when you're ill, it can exacerbate symptoms like fatigue and headache. If you're losing fluids, keep a water bottle handy and sip often.

What's more, other options exist for those who don't like the taste of plain water. 

"While water is perfectly fine to maintain hydration, sometimes our electrolytes get thrown off, too," said Reisdorf. "You can drink electrolyte-enhanced water or add an electrolyte tab or powder to your water. Warm tea with a little honey is always nice to soothe coughs and sore throats. And you can try warm broth if you prefer something that isn't sweet but is still loaded with nutrients."

Foods To Avoid

In general, processed and high-sugar foods promote inflammation, making it harder for your system to fight off sickness. Those foods may include:

  • Fast food
  • Fried food
  • Soda
  • Sweets

To feel your best, steer clear of foods in those categories and choose foods that fight inflammation instead.

You'll also want to watch your alcohol intake as your body works to recover from COVID-19. 

"Consuming too much alcohol can compromise your immune system, making it harder for it to defend your body against foreign invaders," said Amidor. "In addition, alcohol can trigger inflammation in the gut and have a negative impact on the good bacteria living in there that keep your immune system healthy."

What To Eat If You Can't Smell or Taste

Some COVID-19 infections cause the loss of taste and smell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That interference with your senses can be a barrier to eating well or eating at all. 

"If you don't have a sense of taste or smell, it is easy to just not eat, especially if you are not feeling well," said Reisdorf. "But if you don't eat, you won't feel better."

When lack of smell and taste make food unappealing, Reisdorf recommended eating whatever you can. Finding what works for you may take some trial and error.

A Quick Review

No specific food or perfect menu plan is guaranteed to get you back to your usual, virus-free self. And depending on your symptoms, eating much at all may be a tall order. 

But if you feel up to eating normally, try incorporating plenty of fruits and vegetables and skip the foods that weaken your immune system. A healthy, whole-food diet might keep your energy levels up and build a healthy immune system the next time you encounter a virus.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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