This article has been medically reviewed by Howard Orel, MD. Board-certified and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Orel runs an active general pediatric practice, Advocare Marlton Pediatrics. He also serves as CEO of Advocare — one of the largest independent medical groups in the country.
Regardless of who in your household gets the stomach flu, there’s a good chance you’ll be in bad shape — either because you have it or because everyone in your family expects you to take care of them while they’re sick. Trust us: We know neither of those scenarios is pleasant. Even the worst colds don’t cause the same please-end-this-misery-right-now feelings as the stomach flu, between the nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
And speaking of everyone’s favorite symptoms, they can make it very difficult to get someone to eat — and if/when they do eat, to keep the food down. As much as you (or the patient) might want to skip eating altogether, after a while, that’s not a great or safe idea. So, as a parent (and human), it’s imperative to know the best stomach flu foods and what kind of (at least somewhat healthy) diet is best for an upset stomach. Here’s what to keep in mind about what to eat when you (or someone else) have the stomach flu.
What is the stomach flu?
We tend to use the word “flu” to describe any gastrointestinal symptoms involving an upset stomach or throwing up. However, it technically refers to an intestinal infection called “viral gastroenteritis.” According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms are watery diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea or vomiting, and occasional fever. These typically last for a day or two. But in more extreme cases, stomach flu symptoms can stick around for up to 10 days.
Most of the time, people get the stomach flu from contact with other people infected with the virus. Eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water can also cause it, making it even more difficult to eat when you have it. But if adults and older children aren’t able to keep liquids down for 24 hours or more — or have been vomiting more than two days, or even once with blood — it’s time to see a doctor. It can be tricky with babies because they spit up a lot, but that’s different than throwing up (which could require medical attention).
What foods should you avoid when you have the stomach flu?
Before we get into what to eat when you have the stomach flu, let’s talk about the foods and beverages you should avoid. Here are a few examples, courtesy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Cleveland Clinic, and the Mayo Clinic:
- Caffeinated beverages including coffee, tea, and some soft drinks
- Foods that are high in fat, like fried foods, pizza, and fast foods
- Foods and drinks with large amounts of simple sugars, like sweetened beverages and some fruit juices
- Milk and milk products that contain the sugar lactose
- Alcoholic beverages
- Tomato-based dishes
- Acidic foods and beverages
- Spicy or highly seasoned foods
- Processed foods
What should you eat when you have the stomach flu?
If you grew up in a household where you were told to or forced to eat every meal, you may assume you should eat no matter the circumstances. And that might be something you require of your own kids now. But it’s definitely not something to adhere to if someone has the stomach flu or an upset stomach.
Granted, most experts don’t recommend fasting or following a restricted diet when you have viral gastroenteritis. According to the NIH, research has shown that sticking to a restricted diet does not help treat viral gastroenteritis. So, what should you do? Dr. Laura Lipold, a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic says that you should never force yourself to eat; if you don’t feel like eating when you have the stomach flu, you shouldn’t push your body. Instead, focus on resting and rehydrating your body.
When someone with the stomach flu is ready to eat again, most people can go back to eating their regular diet. But for those who want to ease their way back into eating, here are foods and beverages they might want to start with:
- Hydrating liquids like water, sports drinks, or clear decaffeinated soda
- Plain broths
- Oral rehydration solution (like Pedialyte, Naturalyte, Infalyte, and CeraLyte) with electrolytes — especially for children
- Ice chips
- Crackers (especially saltines)
- Bland chicken and rice (or just rice)
- Complex carbohydrates like potatoes and whole grains
If you start throwing up again or feel nauseated, it’s best to hold off on eating and stick to hydrating liquids.
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