feed a cold, starve a fever?

It is cold and flu season in Louisville and I am sick.  I have chills, aches and pains, a sore throat, chest congestion, a nasty cough, and am feeling really lethargic.  I have been trying to get plenty of rest and consuming vitamin C and other things to help me feel better.  I started wondering about the old saying: starve a cold, feed a fever.  Is there any truth to it?  How did the expression come to be, anyway? 

According to Duke University, no one really knows the origins of the axiom, but most accounts link it back as early as 1574, when dictionary writer John Withals wrote “Fasting is a great remedie of fever.”

In those days, medical wisdom dictated that a drop in body temperature caused colds, while fevers produced a temperature spike.  The rationale behind “feed a cold, starve a fever” may have been that eating food and drinking tonic helped the body generate warmth during a cold, while laying off the calories helped temper the inner heat during a fever. 

“I think (feed a cold, starve a fever) was always pretty much dismissed as folklore,” says Denise Snyder, a nutrition scientist and clinical trials manager at the Duke University School of Nursing. “If you break it out and really think about it, there is some immune response if you eat less during a fever. But as a nutritionist, I certainly wouldn’t tell people to starve themselves.”

Snyder points out that you probably won’t feel like eating anyway — loss of appetite is your body’s natural defense mechanism for fevers, as it helps the immune system focus its energy on fighting pathogens.  “You shouldn’t overconsume, but if you’re hungry you should eat,” she says, adding that fluids can only help fight the fever.

As for “feed a cold,” it’s simply a matter of keeping your nutrient levels up while the virus runs its course.

“Colds usually last longer than fevers,” Snyder says. “You need to be consuming food so you can fight it off — especially fruit and vegetable juices and warm broths.”


A nice soothing, hot bowl of vegetarian pho– you can pick some up from Zen Garden, Vietnam Kitchen, or Annie Cafe


1 Response to “feed a cold, starve a fever?”

  1. 1 culturalcalories
    March 2, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    Since the beginning of February, I’ve had a cold followed by an upper respiratory infection. I went to an herbalist who practices Chinese medicine last week, and besides mixing me up a tincture, she gave me some advice for cold season. Stay away from too many cold & raw foods and consume many hot drinks and loads of soups. So the pho is right on. Hope you’re feeling better!

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