Should You Really Starve or Feed a Cold or Fever? Is the Old Adage Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever True?
The old saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” has truth to it, but generally you should feed a cold and a fever and starve neither.
Although we need nutrients, energy, and liquid to fight sickness, some studies show that food deprivation can actually stimulate helper cells and improve our immune system. Meanwhile, digesting food takes resources away from the body that it could be using to fight sickness. On the other hand, not getting proper liquid, nutrients, or energy to fight off sickness increases the risk of infection.
Certainly there are arguments to be made for feeding both (especially with liquid), but ignoring the potential benefits of “starving” seems a little too easy and short sighted. If you really read the professional medical advice out there, they all essentially draw the same conclusion (even though they widely frame “feed a cold, starve a fever” as a myth to avoid confusion, like we do).
TIP: The easy mom advice is to feed a fever and feed a cold. The truth is a little more subtle and interesting, but ultimately a doctor will always tell you to feed both (because you need liquid, nutrients, and energy… not because digestion is good for healing).
TIP: The saying is “feed a cold, starve a fever”, but it’s sometimes mistaken as “starve a cold, feed a fever”. They are both generally not true, feeding a cold has truth too it, starving a cold really doesn’t seem to. So the order does matter despite its status as a myth.
Why is There Truth to “Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever”?
The fact that we need nutrients and energy when fighting off a cold or fever has led to the labeling of “feed a cold, starve a fever” as a myth. However, caloric intake is not the only way to get nutrients and most humans have excess stored energy in their bodies (fat).
Published studies have showed starving a fever stimulates T cells that help fight fever related symptoms, and that fasting can improve the immune system and help fight off infection, meanwhile no studies we found showed that feeding a fever had helped (except in regards to nutrition, liquid, and energy).
What do We Mean by “Starve”?
It’s not that you want to starve your body of liquid or nutrients (those are both vital to fighting colds and fevers) and it’s not that you don’t need energy (calories are energy). It’s that avoiding the caloric intake part of eating can actually help you fight a fever (due to the specific T cells it stimulates and the way those help your immune system). So starving would mean using stored energy, taking vitamins, and erring on the side of liquid (think chicken soup broth rather than chicken).
Should I Always Starve a Fever and Feed a Cold?
No study has proven that feeding or starving a cold or fever works all the time, and arguments can be made for simply feeding both. More important than caloric intake are sleep, liquid, and nutrients. The saying “feed a cold, starve a fever” shouldn’t be taken as an absolute truth, but it’s not exactly a myth either.
Our Bodies Need Energy, but It Doesn’t Mean Fevers are Better off With Food
Our bodies need the energy to fight illness. When we eat healthy food our body temperature increases, our energy stores increase, and we get extra nutrients. This helps fight both fevers and colds, however, food deprivation has its own set of benefits which might actually outweigh the benefits of eating when one has a fever. Consider that we can drink water, take vitamins, rest, and wear warm clothes with a fever without taking a bite of food. Also, consider that fasting can be healthy for your body.
This video discusses the feed a cold, starve a fever “myth”… Except it’s not a myth at all. This is why FactMyth.com fact-checks factoids. Just because everyone thinks something is true doesn’t mean it is. If I’m wrong, you’ll prove it in the comments below! That is also what FactMyth.com is all about.
Why Aren’t We Hungry When We Have a Fever? Should We Eat Anyway?
When we have a fever our immune system is working overtime to fight the fever (you get hot from the body heat this process generates) and our digestive system is on the back burner. There is no great reason given the science on this page to over feed a fever. If you are hungry, eat. If you aren’t hungry just focus on liquid, vitamins, rest, and temperature control. The best reasoning for feeding a fever is increasing body heat and getting nutrients, eating is required for either of these while not eating actually stimulates helpful T cells that can help fight your fever.
Truths Behind Feeding a Cold and Starving a Fever
Let’s look at some of the truths behind the old maxim “feed a cold; starve a fever”:
- A 2002 study looked at the way T helper cells reacted to food deprivation and food intake. Food intake resulted in increased levels of gamma interferon production, whereas food deprivation stimulated interleukin-4 release. In plain English, the helper cells stimulated via food deprivation actually help to treat a fever and those stimulated with food intake help to treat a cold.
- A 2009 study showed that short-term starvation can aid in survival following bacterial infections (which can be associated with a fever).
- Different studies have shown that fasting improves the healthy lifespan of animals helping to ward off some of the degeneration and sickness related to aging (test weren’t performed on humans). This implies that our natural eating habits (where we don’t eat all the time) actually help to keep us healthy
- Scientific evidence isn’t conclusive on vitamins. The Mayo clinic suggests taking vitamin C while a 2008 study showed vitamin A and D to be useful. The takeaway: a moderate intake of vitamins A, C, and D won’t hurt.
- The science is very clear on sleep. Sleep helps your immune system.