I've been sick for the past two weeks or so with adult-onset chicken pox, and if there's anything that I've learned during this awful, awful time, it's how critical it is to eat well and treat your body right so that it can get as much help as it needs to fight off illness.
After all, if there's ever a time when you want to make sure that your body gets exactly the fuel it needs, it's while you're sick, right?
Sounds logical. Except for the unfortunate fact that my body and my appetite simply wouldn't cooperate with this logic. At all.
This experience brought me face to face with a new issue that I'd like to help sort out for the benefit of my readers. What do you do when you know you need to eat food to help your body, but just you're too sick to really eat?
This is a subject that I haven't yet seen addressed in any food blogs. And if nothing else, the singularly awful experience of contracting adult-onset chicken pox at least gave me time to think about the subject quite a lot. I suppose that's as good a reason as any for me to start up a discussion, and today's post is my effort to share some insights on the subject.
When you're really sick, knowing you need to eat and actually bringing yourself to eat can be two entirely different things. After reading today's post, I hope you'll be able to put some of these strategies and tactics to work so even if you're really sick, you'll still be sure your body gets sufficiently fueled up.
Let's get started with some terms and definitions. In my opinion, the best foods for your body during times of moderate to serious illness will meet some or all of the following four criteria:
They need to be:
2) comfort foods,
3) easy on your stomach, and
4) laughably easy to make.
1) Energy-Dense Foods
Certain foods simply contain more energy than others. Foods that are high in fat and protein (polish sausage, for example) tend to contain much more fuel per unit of volume. Result: you can get more fuel into your body without overtaxing a weaker than normal appetite.
2) Comfort Foods
Any foods that are fun to eat and bring about good associations. When I was sick as a kid, my Mom used to make tapioca as a treat for me--I used to take rainbow sprinkles and shake them on top and eat the whole thing with delight. It was the only redeeming thing about being sick! Think back to the types of foods that bring back comforting memories from childhood, and stock your pantry with a few of them for the next time you're really sick.
3) Easy on Your Stomach Foods
You'll want to make sure that the foods you eat are gentle on your mouth, throat, stomach and digestive tract, which means that spicy foods, as well as acidic foods like citrus juices and fresh fruits, are best avoided for the time being.
4) Laughably Easy to Make Foods
When you are feeling under the weather, choose from only the very easiest recipes in your collection. Or better still, consider taking a break from cooking entirely. Now is a better time to focus on your health and strength rather than on the cost of the meal.
Foods that meet all four of these criteria will get much needed fuel into your body with a minimum of preparation, a minimum of nausea, and a minimum of effort. And this will give your body extra energy that it can use to get healthy. We will shortly go over ideas for foods that you can eat that will satisfy two, three and even all four of these categories.
You'll also notice some conspicuous--and counterintuitive--omissions from this list. I made no mention of high-fiber foods, vegetables, antioxidants or vitamins in any of these four categories. And I also specifically left out important foods like fresh fruits and juices.
Why would I do this? First, keep in mind that we're not talking about foods to eat when you're only slightly sick. When you're only a little bit sick, you still can eat most anything you want anyway, and obviously you should emphasize nutritious, healthy eating with lots of fresh fruits, juices and vegetables. I'm quite confident that Casual Kitchen readers already know to do this.
Today's article is meant for more serious health circumstances than a run-of-the-mill cold or virus. Remember, the title of this post is "What to Eat When You're Sick as a Dog" after all! Perhaps you're dealing with severe nausea, or you're taking meds that play havoc with your digestive tract and your appetite. Your body just isn't hungry at all, and yet you know you have to eat something if only to try to help your body not get sicker still.
When you're feeling this sick, there is no point in fantasizing about an idealized meal of fruits and veggies. Your body probably wouldn't be able to hold that kind of a meal down anyway.
Instead, I believe it's more healthy to focus on getting a realistic dose of energy-dense fuel into your body--and have it stay there. That way, your body gets some fuel rather than none.
Let's go over a few specific examples. I'll start with my favorite childhood comfort food, tapioca. It may not be the healthiest food on earth, but it's energy-dense, easy to make and gentle on the stomach.
Some background on my recent illness: when I started taking Vicodin, on about day five of my chicken pox experience, eating (and more importantly, holding down) a balanced meal was becoming more and more inconceivable. About every four hours or so, I would have a 30-to 60-minute window between Vicodin pills where the pain from the chicken pox and the nausea from the meds would offset each other just enough so that I could consider the idea of eating some food (did I tell you that getting adult onset chicken pox sucks?).
During this brief window, a quick batch of tapioca could have put an extra 300-400 calories into me with minimal fuss. Plus, the comfort food factor would have cheered me up too. That's a dose of precious fuel and positive energy that my body really could have used.
If I'd had a so-called "healthy" meal instead, bursting with well-intentioned vitamins and antioxidants, it would have been a waste of precious appetite. It never would have stayed down.
Obviously, you can't eat tapioca and nothing else every four hours for a week straight and expect your health to improve. I'm not suggesting you do that. However, I am making the case that you should bias your diet towards foods that give you comfort as well as an efficient burst of fuel, so you can store up some energy for your body to keep fighting and keep the food down too.
Let's consider some other great examples of foods that will satisfy our four criteria above and can help you endure those darkest days of illness:
Perhaps everyone's favorite comfort food, ice cream has the singular benefit of satisfying all four of our criteria above. That's why I eat ice cream nearly every single day whenever I'm sick. Hey, it's the one time in life you can really get away with it.
Brown Rice with an Egg
One of my favorite foods at times like these is brown rice with a boiled egg. I make a batch of brown rice according to my personal recipe, but then about 8-10 minutes before the rice is ready, I crack an egg into the saucepan, generously seasoning the egg with black pepper or chili powder (I go milder on the spicing based on what my stomach is telling me). Then, I just re-cover the pan, wait ten minutes, and then serve and eat, starting with the egg.
This preposterously easy, yet mild and comforting recipe gives you a balanced mix of protein, fiber, fat and energy that you can get down in just a few bites. Plus you'll have easy-to-reheat leftovers for future meals. And those 400 or so calories you just slipped into your body will be extremely valuable fuel for your immune system.
This a food that I wasn't able to eat during my peak periods of nausea last week, but as the nausea lifted during week two, I was able to take more advantage of this idea. My protein powder of choice is whey isolate powder from Prolab (I've also tried GNC's brand but I find it too sickly sweet). The beauty of this "food" is that it needs to be dissolved in water or milk (or a smoothie, see below), so you also get the secondary benefit of encouraging your body to take in more fluids. That's always a good thing when you're feeling under the weather.
The degree to which you'll want to include fresh fruits, especially high-acid fruits, may vary depending on your health level and how your stomach feels, but there is no easier way to get a balanced meal into your body quickly and efficiently than by mixing up a quick smoothie made of fruits and veggies on hand. Heck, the blender does all the work--you don't even need to waste any effort chewing. You just drink, and then sit back and let your body extract the nutrients.
I hope to get a bit deeper into the subject of smoothies in the coming weeks here at Casual Kitchen.
Don't force yourself to eat. It goes without saying that you want the foods that you put into your body to stay in your body, so you can extract energy from them. There is nothing more wasteful (and more miserable) than to force down a meal only to have it not stay down.
Pay attention to the brief windows of hunger (or perhaps, better-phrased: windows of non-nausea) you have during each day that you're ill. Each "window" is an opportunity to get just a bit more fuel into your body to help it fight your illness.
One final semi-serious warning: Foods like ice cream, Haagen Dazs bars, tapioca, or any of your personal favorite energy-dense comfort foods that satisfy all four of our criteria above (comforting, energy-dense, easy to make and easy on your stomach) are in many ways the best kinds of foods to emphasize when you are sickest. But keep in mind that no single food can fuel you indefinitely. As much as you might love to live by Ben & Jerry's alone, you obviously will want to hold as an important medium-term goal the intention to get your health back to a stage where you can eat other foods too. Don't misread this article as a license to eat junk food until you fall into a death spiral.
Last, a disclaimer: Obviously, I am not a doctor. I don't even play one in the blogosphere. If you are suffering from a serious illness and don't know what to do, consult with a real doctor. And please don't tell him I told you to eat only tapioca until you get better. If you think that was the point of this article, I encourage you to re-read it.
Readers, what are the favorite foods you like to eat when you are sick as a dog? I'd love to get more input and feedback on my arguments here.
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