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The Facts Behind “Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever”

We’ve all heard old wives’ tales like gum lives in our stomachs for seven years or that the hair of the dog will cure a hangover. While these are myths, occasionally, superstitions such as these have some truth to them, like the old saying “feed a cold, starve a fever.”

The adage comes from an entry in a dictionary written in 1574 by a man named John Withals, according to Scientific American. It reads: “Fasting is a great remedy of a fever.” And while many healthcare professionals are still debating whether a fever should be fed or starved, Bindiya Gandhi, MD, a double boarded-certified integrative and family medicine practitioner, believes the latter.

“By allowing the body to starve or not fuel the infection, the body can fight it and do its job completely,” she says.

How to beat a fever

A fever is a temporary rise in body temperature above 100.4°F (38°C) or higher. Typically a normal temperature sits at around 97°F (36.1°C) to 99°F (37.2°C). “When we have a cold or infection, our metabolic rate increases causing a spike in temperature as our bodies start warding off the infection,” Dr. Gandhi says.

While she doesn’t suggest feeding a fever by consuming solid foods, Dr. Ghandi says you still want to remain hydrated. “Medical doctors encourage plenty of rest and fluids when you have a fever,” she says, adding that the reason hydration is a top priority is that we lose more fluids when we’re ill. “Replacing fluids is essential as it’s easier to get dehydrated when our metabolism is revved up.”

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Beyond rest and water, Dr. Ghandi encourages consuming bone broth. “Bone broth has essential proteins, vitamins, and minerals that can help heal the body and assist in recovering quicker,” she says.

What to eat to feed a cold

If you’re suffering from a cold, you want to focus on eating foods “rich in vitamin C,” Dr. Ghandi says. “Oranges and peppers are helpful. Zinc also speeds up recovery as does eating pumpkin seeds.”

People who included zinc in their diets saw their cold symptoms clear up two days earlier in a study conducted at Western Sydney University in Penrith, New South Wales recently. Evaluating 5,446 participants with colds, they were given either a zinc spray or liquid formulation, or a placebo. Those who used zinc recovered faster. The benefits of zinc come from its ability to regulate immune cell function. So make sure you medicine cabinet and pantry are stocked with sources of the trace mineral, which can be found in supplement form, as well as foods such as legumes, dark chocolate, and whole grains.

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