With flu season in full swing, folks are lining up for flu shots and stocking up on soup. Kathy McManus, who has served as director of nutrition at Brigham and Women’s Hospital for the last 12 years and worked at the institution for more than 30, offered advice on what to eat before and during sickness.
Q. What can people do to prevent the flu?
A. Obviously getting a flu shot is number one. From a food standpoint, a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein are certainly things that we would recommend as part of a healthy diet in general. Fruits and vegetables have certain vitamins like vitamin C that can be helpful. Grapefruits, oranges, tangerines, and clementines are loaded with vitamin C. We think it’s more important to eat healthfully than to pop a bunch of pills. The other thing is adequate sleep. That’s important for folks to stay healthy, along with exercise and trying to decrease your stress.
Q. So you’re against people taking shortcuts to boost their immune systems?
A. Exactly. They think that, well, I haven’t been eating too healthfully, maybe if I pop a supplement here or there or some extra vitamins, it’s going to ward it off. Well, there’s no science to support that that helps, first of all, and I think that trying to get all of those nutrients through your diet is really the best way.
Q. In trying to stave off a flu, which foods should you stock up on?
A. Berries are rich in antioxidants — blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries — and they don’t have to be fresh. Frozen is great, they still serve the same purpose. Different vegetables have different types of nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, vitamin B6. I think that what happens during the winter, because they may not be fresh or as plentiful, people really lose sight of the importance of consuming these foods. But we can put them in different things, like chili. Vegetarian chili is a wonderful way to get in a variety of vegetables and beans.
Q. What do you recommend for liquids?
A. I think the other thing we forget about is fluids, trying to get adequate water and water-filled foods, fruits, and vegetables. Soup is an excellent way to get in some fluid and really healthy nutrients. So having a rich chicken soup or vegetable soup is a wonderful way to stay healthy, and certainly if you do develop flu symptoms, these are the kinds of things that can help.
Q. What about sports drinks to replenish electrolytes?
A. I’m not a huge fan of Gatorade. Much of it is sugar-sweetened so it has a lot of additional sugar and calories that aren’t really necessary. So I do recommend regular water or a nice tea, and some water-filled vegetables and fruits, like watermelon and other types of melons that have a high water content and can give some nice fluids without a lot of added sugar.
Q. What about if you do come down with the flu?
A. Oftentimes people like having something warm. As I mentioned, chicken soup is an excellent way to get some good nourishment when people may not have much of an appetite and they don’t taste things when their nose is stuffed up. I also think it’s important to have small, more frequent meals, like every two hours or so. Make sure that you are well-hydrated through this because, depending on what your symptoms are, you may be losing a lot more fluid than normal.
Q. When you lose your appetite, what else goes down easy?
A. Maybe some yogurt, a way to get in healthy calories with some protein. Cottage cheese is another way when they don’t feel like eating a standard meal. They could also make a smoothie with skim milk and yogurt and fruit or a vegetable smoothie that can go down a little easier as a liquid. Another dish is eggs. Scrambled eggs with a little bit of toast can be a nice, simple, easy-to-prepare meal that’s very nourishing.