The frigid temperatures and falling snow have been particularly relentless in Northeast Ohio this winter. Along with this harsh winter, we have had a difficult cold and flu season. As a dietitian and a mother, I look at the sick people around me and immediately want to feed them to help ease their pain. My mind seems to naturally drift towards food for healing. Is it true that we should feed a cold as the old saying goes?
I grew up with a mom who was also a nurse and a vitamin guru. When I came down with a cold, she would start pushing the vitamin C tablets and lots of fluid. In my college nutrition classes, I learned that vitamin supplements could be ineffective, wasteful (in the case of vitamin C), and even toxic. Rather, food was the better, more wholesome choice to meet our nutritional needs. So food vs. supplements has been a point of contention between mom and me for years. Which is better for a cold? I decided to do some research on the usual cold remedies.
A well-regarded review of over 29 studies that followed more than 11,000 participants showed that mega doses of vitamin C failed in preventing colds. Smaller doses, 200 mg of vitamin C (which is twice the RDA’s for adults), showed a slight reduction (only 8 percent) in the duration of a cold but only for some people. (Sorry Mom!)
Vitamin C supplementation is not significantly effective in the prevention or shortening the duration of colds. On the other hand, vitamin C does play an important role in fighting infection and is a powerful antioxidant. What are the best food sources of vitamin C? Although juice is high in vitamin C, it is also high in calories and sugar and low in fiber. Go for the whole fruit such as an orange or grapefruit. You could also squeeze some lemon into your tea.
Mom was right on this one. Extra fluids can help relieve cold symptoms by thinning mucus and possibly easing congestion. Hot fluids in particular may have added benefits by raising the temperature of the airways which helps to loosen secretions. One study showed that chicken soup, as compared to other liquids, was the most effective at clearing nasal passages. Although unpleasant, runny noses help rid the body of pathogenic viruses and bacteria. A different study looked at the individual components of chicken soup and found that its ingredients were valuable antioxidants. As it turns out, chicken soup for colds is more than just an old wives tale.
The use of zinc for relief of cold symptoms is controversial. According to the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a respected medical clearinghouse, zinc lozenges, tablets, or syrup can cut a cold short by an average of a day or more and reduce the severity of symptoms when taken within the first 24 hours of the onset of a cold. This is not groundbreaking but it is something. While its mechanism is uncertain, zinc appears to have antiviral properties that help prevent the cold virus from replicating or attaching to nasal membranes. Participants took lozenges every 3-4 hours during the day for a total of 50-65 mg per day. However, don’t assume more is better as too much zinc can interfere with absorption of other minerals.
Contrary to popular belief, vitamin D does not prevent a cold. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that vitamin D does not prevent colds or lessen the severity. However, it does play a vital role in bone health and is still being studied for its impact on other health conditions.
If you are looking for a good vitamin D source, it does not occur naturally very many foods. Milk is fortified with vitamin D and is the best food source. The sun is a great source of vitamin D but difficult to get in an Ohio winter. Five to 30 minutes of sun exposure to the skin on your face, arms, or legs two times per week is recommended.
Overall, the best remedies for the cold and flu seem to be the old standbys of chicken soup and extra fluids. The merits of vitamin and mineral supplements in fighting colds are not very convincing. Most of us are likely to get sick at least once over the winter season. So the best thing we can do for ourselves is relax with some hot tea and a bowl of chicken soup. Hopefully, you have the added bonus of a loved one (whether it be mom or someone else) to cook it for you.
Learn more about getting the vitamins you need to stay healthy from your food in this eBook.
About Sue Campbell, RD, LD: Sue is the Community Nutritionist at Kendal at Oberlin in Oberlin, Ohio. She studied at Ohio University and graduated with a degree in Dietetics in 1992. She has been working with older adults for the past 15 years and particularly enjoys wellness topics, cooking and writing.