By now, you probably know what to do if you have a mild case of COVID-19: Isolate, monitor your symptoms, and seek help if they become severe. What you might not know is what to eat if you test positive to start feeling well again, as quickly as possible.
Though research on how specific foods can impact your recovery from the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still in its infancy, it's well-known that a balanced, nutrient-dense diet is key to maintaining a robust immune system. Below, everything to know about what to put on your plate when you have COVID-19.
What We Know About Diet and COVID-19
There’s no proof that eating certain foods will make your COVID-19 symptoms go away faster, dietitian Toby Amidor, RD, CDN, 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,” Amidor says. But some foods (and, more specifically, the nutrients they contain) appear to help the body mount a more successful response to invaders.
Vitamin D specifically is a key component of immune health. A 2017 review and meta-analysis published in The BMJ found that vitamin D supplementation—especially in participants who were deficient—was found to protect against acute respiratory tract infections. Other micronutrients—like vitamin C, vitamin B6, and vitamin E, among others—have also been associated with better immune health. Certain macronutrients, like fiber and protein, have been linked to stronger immunity, as well.
Fermented foods may play a role in immune health, too. According to a 2021 study published in the journal Cell, consumption of fermented foods led to more microbiome diversity—which can impact 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.
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Fruits and Vegetables
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is a great way to build up general health and immune health. Fruits and veggies high in immune-supporting micronutrients like vitamins A, C, D, and zinc include:
- Citrus fruits
- Sweet potatoes
- Bell peppers
Not only do these foods supply key micronutrients, many of them give you a boost of complex carbohydrates. These can keep your energy levels steadier throughout the day, which might be beneficial when dealing with COVID-19 fatigue.
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.
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—most likely because beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract reduce inflammation.
If COVID-19 has you down for the count, try oatmeal and barley. Both contain a fiber called beta-glucan, which is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties. (And, since both have a naturally smooth texture, they shouldn’t aggravate a scratchy throat.) Other nutritious, high-fiber grains include quinoa, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, and brown rice.
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Of the three macronutrients—protein, fat, and carbs—protein is known for its ability to build muscle and repair tissues. It also serves as the backbone of all your cells, including immune cells. Getting too little of it impairs immune function and puts you at greater risk of infectious disease, according to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Many protein sources also contain micronutrients, Amidor said, 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," she said. 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, including beans, lentils, and tofu (all of which are good sources of fiber, too). Then again, if digestive complaints are part of your COVID-19 experience, you may want to avoid these foods, since they could aggravate bloating and diarrhea.
You might have heard the age-old myth that dairy triggers excess phlegm production and, thus, 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, Amidor said: “Yogurt is one of my top foods to boost immunity because it contains live, active cultures that act as probiotics.” She added that some probiotic strains have been linked to boosted immunity and healthy digestive systems.
Since yogurt and yogurt-based foods like smoothies and shakes typically have 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 as well. "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," Amidor said.
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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, be sure to keep a water bottle handy and sip often.
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," Reisdorf said. "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 like fast food, fried food, soda, and sweets promote inflammation in the body, making it harder for your system to fight off sickness. To feel your best, steer clear of foods in these categories.
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," Amidor said. "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."
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What to Eat When 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). This 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,” Reisdorf said. “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 simply take some trial and error.
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, a healthy, whole foods diet might keep your energy levels up and build a healthy immune system for 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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