Eating these foods can help reduce Covid-19 symptoms + improve immune health, say doctors

covid 19 diet
What should you eat when you have Covid-19?Getty Images

There’s a lot of guidance out there on what you should do if you test positive for COVID-19, and odds are you know the drill pretty well by now.

If you're a little hazy on the detail, here's a primer: if you have COVID-19, you can pass on the virus to other people for up to 10 days from when your infection starts. Many people will no longer be infectious to others after 5 days.

So, per NHS advice, once you've tested positive for the virus you should:

  1. Try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 5 days

  2. Avoid meeting people at higher risk from COVID-19 for 10 days, especially if their immune system means they’re at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19, even if they’ve had a COVID-19 vaccine

One major thing that’s not covered in all the extensive guidance out there? What to eat once you have contracted the infection.

After all, COVID-19 can come with a host of uncomfortable symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, and sore throat—is there anything you can eat to help?

While experts say there’s no need to dramatically alter your diet when you have COVID-19, there are a few tweaks that can help you to get through the illness as comfortably as possible.

How likely is what you eat to influence your illness?

It’s important to get this out of the way upfront: What you eat is unlikely to speed up the course of your illness or what kind of symptoms you experience.

'Right now, there’s no data that show that eating special types of food or taking certain vitamins for COVID-19 like vitamin D, zinc, or vitamin C are going to influence your course of Covid-19,' says Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York.

The NHS says that while there have been some reports about vitamin D reducing the risk of coronavirus (COVID-19), there are currently not enough evidence to support taking vitamin D solely to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) comes to the same conclusion, while acknowledging several studies that suggest people with low vitamin D levels are at an increased risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 than others.

Insufficient evidence also exists for health governing bodies to recommend supplementation of zinc and vitamin C - two other nutrients which have been researched in relation to Covid-19 outcomes.

You may have also heard that fermented foods can boost your immune system. And, while research has found that people who eat fermented foods have a more diverse gut microbiome, which can impact your immune response, it’s also unlikely to help once you’re actually sick, says infectious disease doctor Richard Watkins, also a professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

What should you eat when you have COVID-19?

It really depends on your symptoms. 'It is important to eat a normal diet and keep well-hydrated during your illness as fever can be dehydrating,' says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

It’s not that being well hydrated will help speed up the course of your illness, Dr. Russo says, but rather that it will allow your body to function well to fight the illness (and prevent you from dealing with uncomfortable dehydration side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, and dizziness in the process).

'COVID-19 inflammation increases metabolism and water loss (especially if fever is present), so keeping well hydrated keeps one ahead of the process and will help prevent dehydration,” Dr. Adalja adds.

You’ll want to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, along with lean proteins to make sure you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs and keeping your body in good working order, Dr. Russo says.

Beyond that, though, it really depends on your symptoms. If you’re struggling with gastrointestinal issues, Dr Adalja says that you really should just 'eat whatever is tolerable'.

Losing your sense of taste and smell can happen, but it’s not as common with the currently circulating strains of COVID-19 as it was in the past. Still, if you happen to lose your sense of taste and smell, Dr. Watkins recommends still trying to eat a nutritious diet, even though you may not feel like eating much. 'It is important to maintain an adequate diet with enough calories,' he says.

You can also throw scent training into the mix in an effort to recover your senses, Dr. Russo says. In case you’re not familiar with the practice, scent training involves smelling certain strong scents, like cinnamon and citrus, and imagining what they smell like while you inhale. Studies have found it can help people recover their sense of smell and taste somewhat, but research is ongoing.

Should you avoid any foods when you have COVID-19?

Again, it’s unlikely that any particular foods will drastically influence the course of your illness, but eating certain foods could make you feel less-than-optimal while your body is fighting off the infection.

Fast foods, fried foods, and things that are high in added sugar may simply make you feel crummy on top of already feeling bad from having COVID, Dr. Russo says.

They may even increase inflammation in your body, although the occasional fried food or treat is unlikely to do that in the context of an otherwise healthy diet, says Jessica Cording, dietitian and author of The Little Book of Game-Changers.

Should I cut out dairy when I have Covid-19?

You’ve probably heard that it’s a good idea to avoid dairy when you have a runny nose and phlegm, but the research on that advice has been mixed.

Some older studies have found that dairy doesn’t impact how much mucus volume you create, while more recent research found that going dairy-free may reduce the amount of mucus you produce.

That latest study assigned 108 people who were sick to eat a diet that included or avoided dairy for six days and found that those who went dairy-free reported lower levels of congestion than the other group. (Worth noting: that was self-reported, so it’s hard to say whether the levels of congestion were actually lower.) Basically, you could go off dairy, but it’s not necessarily a given that it will help you.

Let's talk about alcohol - do I have to go cold turkey after testing positive?

It's heartily recommend to steer clear of alcohol, Dr. Russo says, to prevent you from getting dehydrated and contributing to more bodily inflammation. You also don’t want to run the risk of overdoing it and feeling even worse the next day, he says.

It's also worth remembering that doctors can’t rule out the possibility that alcohol could impact your body’s ability to fight infection. In fact, the NIH says that alcohol tends to impair your body’s immediate immune response to a virus, 'making it easier for an infection to develop'.

Hmm. So, ultimately, it’s better to be safe and give your body every edge to help clear the infection. Wishing you well.

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