Grandma Said, “Starve a Fever and Feed a Cold.” Was She Right?

Truth or myth? Learn the science behind this common expression.

Grandma knows best, right? (She sure does in the kitchen!) But when it comes to the common adage “starve a fever and feed a cold,” she may only be partially right.

Where Did This Phrase Come From?

According to Scientific American, the first instance of this phrase was found in a 1574 dictionary. Doctors in the 16th and 17th centuries believed if you had a fever, you needed to fast to cool off your body. They also thought that if you ate, your body would spend more energy on digestion than fighting the fever, prolonging the illness. That’s why they recommended patients fast so their bodies wouldn’t generate energy for digestion, helping bring the body temperature back to normal.

On the other hand, if you had a cold, doctors thought you needed to eat to warm up your body. By kickstarting your digestive system, your body would produce extra heat to help normalize your body temperature.

Here’s What Doctors Have to Say Today

Turns out, doctors today never recommend starving a fever. Scientists haven’t found any substantial evidence to prove that starving a fever and feeding a cold fights off illness.

While there have been a couple of studies—one by Dutch scientists in 2002 and one at Yale University in 2016—that suggested eating stimulates a response to help your body fight off viral infections, the studies were conducted with a small sample size and mice, respectively, and haven’t been replicated. And because it’s hard to tell whether the fever is caused by a viral or bacterial infection, “starve a fever and feed a cold” doesn’t always apply.

In fact, fasting on the onset of the flu can be dangerous because it deprives your immune system of the energy it needs to fight off the illness.

Eat, Drink and Be Healthy When You’re Ill (and All the Time!)

When we’re sick, our metabolism increases to fuel our body’s defenses, meaning we need to provide our body with the nutrition and hydration it needs.

Even though we often have a decreased appetite when we’re ill because our bodies are devoting energy to fighting the sickness, it’s important to maintain proper nutrition, especially in children. Adults usually have enough fat reserved to provide our immune systems with energy, meaning we don’t have to force-feed ourselves if we don’t feel like eating, but children don’t have the same energy reserves. That’s why it’s important to ensure children eat when they are sick. Try to eat a diet rich in fiber, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants, and avoid fatty foods, especially those with saturated fats. Here are the best foods to eat during cold and flu season.

Even more important than eating is staying hydrated. Fevers make you dehydrated because they generate sweat, so it’s essential you replenish fluids. Try something with sugars and electrolytes, like Gatorade or soup broth. Here’s how much water you should be drinking every day.

When we are dehydrated, the mucus in our nose and throat dries up, worsening our symptoms and making it more difficult to cough. Help rehydrate mucus by drinking tea, taking a hot shower or by eating soup, like classic chicken noodle. Not only is inhaling the warm vapors good for your nose and throat, but the spices can clear your sinuses, the veggies have immune-boosting antioxidants and the chicken is full of amino acids.

The Bottom Line

The best way to fight off colds and flu is to eat if you’re hungry, drink more fluids than you think you need and get plenty of rest. And remember it’s better to “feed a fever and feed a cold.”

When you’re hit with a cold, try these foods to feel better, fast.

77 Foods to Eat When You Have a Cold
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Alexa Hackfort
Alexa is a writer who believes there’s always room for ice cream. Based in Milwaukee, she enjoys exploring the city, tackling new recipes and planning her next trip.