What to Eat When You're Sick as a Dog

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:
1) energy-dense,
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:

Ice Cream
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.

Protein Powder
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.

Final Thoughts
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.

Related Posts:
How to Live Forever in Ten Easy Steps
Eat Right to See Right: Foods for Better Eye Health
When High-Carb Diets Don't Work
Seven Ways to Get Faster at Cooking

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Judy said...

Daniel, I'm so sorry you're sick. Adult chicken pox is devastating, and I hope you recover soon. My hubby is recovering from surgery on his wrist and the meds are killing his appetite. He wanted chicken soup last night and honestly I was too exhausted to make it, so I bought canned. It filled his tummy. I'll make him some homemade tomorrow maybe; in the meantime, he'll eat canned. PS Thanks for adding me to your blogroll. I added you to mine, lower right on blog. Get well soon.

Liz T. said...

I am so sad you've been so miserable! I've only known one other person who has had adult onset chicken pox, and she had it in her 20s. She was miserable, but my guess is that it's one of those things that gets more miserable as you get older.

Somehow, my favorite comfort foods from my childhood are Lipton chicken noodle soup (in the pouch) and a good ginger ale, two things I would never eat or serve to my family under normal circumstances but I always have some on hand just in case. They are definitely 'special occasion' foods.

Another thing that sometimes appeals is a baked potato, or potato soup.

I'm a huge proponent in 'eat whatever sounds good' in those situations.

Hope you are back among the living soon! :)

Liz T. said...

Oh yeah,and Jello. Some protein, some sugar. We only make it when someone is sick ad asks for it. Sometimes it's the only thing that stays down.

Daniel said...

Some great ideas here. Judy and Liz, I should never have left out chicken soup, that's a perfect comfort food, although maybe not terribly energy-dense.

And jell-o is another great idea.

Thank you for the input!


Anonymous said...

Sorry about the sickness.....sucks.

I have been plagued by a variety of ills lately, so your article hit home. I had to have a tooth extracted, and a day later came down with laryngitis. Fortunately, pain meds (for the tooth) don't make throw up..but they do tend to decrease my appetite. And who wants to eat with a sore mouth/throat?

I have been doing exactly what you recommend: using my illness as an excuse to get to know Ben and Jerry. I rarely treat myself to Cherry Garcia....but had an entire pint yesterday! Bad girl, but I feel better!

Amanda said...

Hi, Daniel,

I hope you're starting to feel a bit better; how awful that vicodin makes you ill, too. After my recent surgery I took vicodin and didn't feel nauseated at all. I guess everyone has a different reaction to meds!

I'm afraid I can't stick too closely to your criteria. When I'm sick I have to force myself to eat carefully because of diabetes. Fortunately at those same times my tastebuds tend to go completely--so flavor doesn't often work into the equation.

For me, my go-to foods while really sick are:

- yogurt: the bacteria help the digestive tract
- sugar-free puddings and jello
- low-sugar ice cream (everyone's favorite)
- broth definitely--with some "stuff" inside as I can manage. Things like mini-meatballs or pieces of ham, rice, noodles, barley. Even ramen noodles are easy for my hubby to make and are, at least, edible.
- eggs: poached on a little toast is a comfort for me and I can usually keep it down.
- energy drinks: for me, that's glucerna; for others it might be stuff like ensure. Even if you don't keep it all down, there are vitamins and protein that hopefully you'll get some benefit from.
- popsicles: I like these made from watered-down low-acid fruit juice or crystal light.
- mac & cheese from a box mix: comfort food and easy for the hubs to make, though obviously I can't eat it in any large amounts.
- a few crackers: sometimes when I feel nauseated I force myself to eat something very small and light and there are times when it settles the tummy just enough to rest more comfortably.

The smoothie idea is fantastic; I look forward to future smoothie posts, as this is something I don't often make at home.

Joanne said...

Oooo I'm so sorry you're sick and I hope you're feeling better! Chicken pox as an adult is supposed to be horrible. I had it when I was in kindergarten, and boy am I glad I did. By the time you're in your twenties it's a little weird to be craving oatmeal baths from your mom...or requesting that she rub calomine lotion all over your body. Tapioca sounds like a good cure. My mom always made us toast with grape jelly when we were sick. I can't eat grape jelly without thinking about it to this day!

JJ (Lady Di) said...

Mashed potatoes and pudding are things I use along with things that others have mentioned. Most of the time my problems involve nausea or smell sensitivity(from migraines) or need to be soft (from TMJ if I've had dental work or had to have my mouth open for a long period of time).

One book I like to use is: "Laurel's Kitchen Caring: Recipes for Everyday Home Caregiving". It's pretty specialized, but it gives me ideas when I don't want to think.

Natalie B. said...

cool I will try it im as sickas a dog too.

Djon Ma said...


I found your post here by searching google for "What if you're too sick to eat?".
I'm sorry you've been so ill; adult chicken pox is meant to be horrible! I'm kind of lucky in that I developed shingles when I was 17, so I'll never get full chicken pox again, though I do have the chance of getting shingles again, so that's horrible!

I've been really, really sick recently; I had an emergency laraproscopy in hospital as they thought I had appendicitis. Turns out I don't, but I might have endometriosis :-(

I am sick ALL the time though!
Nausea constantly, and if I eat or even drink, it gets horrible!
I'm on my third anti-emetic as the other two didn't do enough, and this is the last on I can take as all the others the doctor went through in the medical book give risk of arrythmia with my other meds!
So I might actually end up back in hospital and have no control over what I eat anyway :-( Though I wonder if they'd be nice enough to let me put things I know I can keep down, or at least tempt me to eat in the ward fridge. Surely it'd be better for me to be tempted to eat a bit than to not eat anything!
I don't want one of those feeding tubes, besides food going into my stomach any way is still going to make me sick!

My thoughts on what to eat whilst sick though:

A favourite family sickness food is marmite on toast. I'm not sure if you can get marmite in the US though! It's a UK thing mainly. It's a yeast extract and is full of b vitamins, with extra b12, so you keep your iron levels up even if you're not eating iron-dense foods.
It's really, really yummy on toast, so encourages you to eat, and it's fairly plain, so it stays down well.
Warning though!!! If you can find it... you might not like it. Marmite has this odd thing where people either love it or hate it. It's so unique like that that they use it in the advertising!

I actually bought a cheapie toaster the other day when we went shopping to get food to tempt me to eat, because my other toaster is still in a box from moving house, and I can't find it! But I knew I'd need marmite on toast!

Other things I bought were greek yoghurt and honey, and muesli, which I'll eat together. Yummy!
Also fruit salads in cans, as I'm not up to doing my own from fresh fruit at the moment. The fruit can go with the yoghurt and muesli too!
And that's like a desert, very yummy, but also very healthy!

I also got feta cheese and cottage cheese. I LOVE them! As a vegetarian, cheese is a big part of my diet, far TOO big actually! I LOVE cheese so much! feta is a goats cheese too, so it helps with my lactose intolerance (I know, lactose intolerant but addicted to cheese... how bad is that?)

I also got what is a huge treat for me; applewood (a smoked strong cheddar) and pickled onions. These make my favourite sandwich that I've loved since I discovered applewood as a kid!
That'll certainly tempt me to eat!

Oh and I got some quorn frankfurters (quorn is a mycoprotein, and it's a meat alternative in the UK, I think it's started to make it to the US, so you may have heard of it), to have hotdogs as I just fancy them, and some quorn brussels pate, which is a very rare treat as it's rather expensive!
But I knew I needed to be tempting myself to eat.

I think tempting yourself to eat is a massive thing.
I've been on oramorph for months for my back - I actually stopped it a few months ago, but then I had swine flu, and then this stay in hospital and surgery, and this horrible sickness, and I'm back on the oramorph for the tummy pain anyway!
So I've not been eating much for a LONG time. I've gone with tempting myself when I feel rough, and it works wonders!
It's far more important to get SOME food into yourself and keep it in there and especially if you like the food and it's normally a treat or a rare thing, than to try to eat something that's a balanced meal, but that you'll bring straight back up.

This is a bit too long and it won't let me submit the whole thing, so I'll add another comment to finish!

Djon Ma said...

I wish I could find some kind of alternative to chicken broth though.
In the US you can get all sorts of meat alternatives, I sometimes look at the cooking blogs I'm subscribed to, and the veggie blogs and comms, and wonder at the things they can eat!
Vegetarian chorizo! Wow!!! I'd LOVE to get some of that!
But it's so hard to find over here. You have TONS of stuff that we just don't have :-(
I don't eat meat because of my religious commitments, not because I don't like the taste of it, and even though I've been a veggie for 22 years, I still remember how good some of it tastes! Hehe!

I tried just having vegetable broth, but it was a bit rubbish.
I might try some with some marmite put in there, that'll perk the flavour up. But I don't really feel up to making broth, and I don't really like using the stock cubes as I'm allergic to celery, and they all have celery in, and I have to be careful with them.
Especially with a dodgy stomach!

This is probably such a HUGE comment now, I'm sorry! It's just so nice to find someone who understands! Your post was brilliant, and I'll be definitely watching your blog from now on :-)

Hope you're feeling better soon!

(Sorry, this did get long!!)

Anonymous said...

So sorry you were sick, certainly hope you're fine now.... I'm fortunate in that I don't get that sick very often, but when it does happen (or when it happens to my kids), plain crackers seem to fit the bill reasonably well. And Jello. Any flavor.... it just slithers in and stays fairly inconspicuous...

By the way, I'm new to your blog - thanks for posting interesting points of view on food! :-)

Daniel said...

Hi Anon: yep, I'm totally fine by now, thanks. :)

And I love your choice of words: foods that "slithers in"--that is so perfectly said! Thanks for your comment.


Anonymous said...

I've had a nasty bug with sickness and out the other end - not nice. Found this blog when searching for ideas as everything makes me feel queasy.
I think the general concensus on the net is chicken noodle soup but that would mean a trip to the shops and I don't want to be that far from the bathroom or in contact with other people.
But will try the rice and egg idea - sounds perfect and it doesn't make my stomach lurch when I think about it!

Caelyn said...

Alright so I wanted to share that I always keep popsicles... When I or the kids are sick and were talking cant keep ginger ale down kind of sick popsicles always help. I think its because it goes down a little at a time. It gets the fluids in without bringing them back out. Also feels great for a sore throat. Last time we all had strep we went through about 8 boxes of popsicles. At the end it was a little bit of grams homemade soup but mostly popsicles and mashed potato

Anonymous said...

what?!? but ice cream, tapioca, jello, are all full of sugar, which greatly weakens your immune system

Daniel said...

Hi Anonymous: Perhaps you should re-read the post. The point is to find efficient ways to get energy-dense food into your body at a time when your body can't tolerate very many foods.


Jam said...

Came across your blog while searching for the best foods to eat while sick. I am on antibiotics for the first time in my 35 years. I guess I am lucky, but not feeling that way right now. I'm so nauseous, even if I think of food it makes me feel sick. When I have my "windows" of time when I can actually eat, I've been eating flavored ice, chicken rice soup, yogurt, and crackers. Your blog was perfect for me to read today, so thanks. :)

Kenzie said...

Hi Daniel. I started getting really sick yesterday and the thought or smell of food makes me throw up. But after reading this, Im actually looking forward to eating! My mom would be so proud... Thank you for the wonderful ideas in this horrible time

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I am a healthy eater/fitness enthusiast and I am rarely sick. I am stuck at home with a cold now though, I hate not being able to work out! I do find D3, a good multivitamin, vitamin C, and a tbsp here and there of a silver supplement helps a lot! I think I should be fine by tomorrow. I also eat a lot of lean protein, slow digesting carbs like brown rice, fruits and vegetables and chug water like it's going out of style. It's been over a year since my last cold, I forgot how much it sucks! Egg and rice? That's something my Korean mother used to make for me:)

Anonymous said...

The GNC brand of whey isolate is sweet, but it's great to use if you are sick. It's pack with Glutamine which has been proven to boost the cell-mediated immune response when you have a cold. Chocolate is my favorite!

Kristina said...

Great overall ideas..but I've been in and out of hospitals since I was 3. With an auto-immune disorder that attracts viruses like flies to fly-paper it's to be expected.

From personal experience.. meat is the LAST thing that will be easy on your digestive system. In fact it takes so much energy and time to just digest the meat, the energy isn't substantial and anything salty and greasy like that is bound to make you feel yakky. Eggs and dairy are always recommended to be avoided during illness. The sulfur in eggs can often make sickies nauseous just from the smell and dairy is difficult for most to digest even when perfectly healthy and is also shown to increase mucous production in some.

Go for simple carbs, preferably whole grains, plenty of fruits and bland vegetables (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and asparagus are not appreciated in times of illness), drink plenty of fluids, make sure to get enough sodium and electrolytes but steer clear from sports drinks, the sugar outweighs the benefits and could keep you up when you should be resting. Opt for sherbet or Popsicles instead of ice cream.
Also, drink as much fruit juice as you want at home, 'cause the size of hospital juice cups is a complete joke :P

Anonymous said...

I came across your blog while googling if toast with jam will make my stomach feel worse or not. I've got some kind of nasty bug going on in there, but am feeling hungry. Soda crackers and ginger ale aren't doing the trick. So I'm gonna give toast a try - my mom always made it when I was sick as a kid, cut up into little squares. If it sounds even slightly appealing, its worth a shot. PS, tapioca sounds soooo good right now! But I'm not standing over a stove stirring milk for 20 minutes..