Stomach flu: 14 foods and drinks that are safe to consume and won't upset your digestion
- Experts say the best way to treat viral gastroenteritis — aka the stomach flu — is to focus on staying hydrated by eating ice chips, low-sugar fruits, and drinking plenty of water.
- Once you feel ready to eat solid food, start with items that are simple to digest like toast, crackers, white rice, and steamed potatoes. After that, you can try adding more complex carbs and protein from
foodslike oatmeal and hard-boiled eggs.
- When you're recovering from the stomach flu, spicy, high-fat, sugary, acidic foods and drinks, coffee, and alcoholic beverages should be avoided.
- This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
Viral gastroenteritis — commonly known as the stomach flu — is an infection of the intestines that involves inflammation of the lining of the stomach, and can cause such unpleasant symptoms as
You can contract this
Like other viral infections, the stomach flu can't be treated with antibiotics, but most people with healthy immune systems will get better on their own within one to three days. Experts say the best way to treat viral gastroenteritis is to focus on hydration, but it can be difficult to get enough fluids or keep food down when you're feeling nauseous, experiencing bouts of vomiting, or dealing with stomach pain.
Here are some foods and fluids that experts say are easier on the stomach and may help with nausea that you can eat with the stomach flu.
What to eat when you have the stomach flu
When you feel ready to introduce solid foods back into your diet, Sashini Seeni, MBBS, a general practitioner at DoctorOnCall, recommends starting slowly with small portions of easy-to-digest foods.
BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) has long been a popular strategy for managing gastrointestinal symptoms of the stomach flu, especially in children. However, the diet lacks many key nutrients like protein, fat, and vitamins A and B12 so it doesn't offer optimal nutrition for your recovering gut and should not be followed for more than a few days, says Sashini Seeni, MBBS, a general practitioner of medicine at DoctorOnCall.
"The BRAT diet for a limited time is unlikely to cause significant side effects, but people should avoid using the diet in the long term," Seeni tells Insider. "Prolonged use of the BRAT diet may lead to malnutrition and low energy."
It's imperative to stay hydrated when you have the stomach flu. However, if you find it difficult to consume enough liquids without feeling nauseous or vomiting, experts agree that eating ice chips is a great way to slowly retain your fluids.
First, see if your stomach can handle ice chips without having an adverse reaction, says Jay Woody, MD, an emergency medicine physician and chief medical officer of Intuitive Health. If you've been vomiting, Seeni advises waiting two hours before trying ice chips — then try sucking on small amounts at first to see if you can tolerate them.
According to Seeni, plain potatoes are a solid food choice because they're easy to digest and loaded with potassium — an electrolyte that can become depleted during the stomach flu due to vomiting and diarrhea. One medium potato with skin provides 632 mg of potassium, which is 24% of the recommended daily value for women, and 16% of the recommended daily value for men.
The best method of cooking your potatoes — or other vegetables — when you have the stomach flu is to steam them because it breaks down some of the hard-to-digest fibers. Also, avoid additives like butter and cheese because they contain fat that may upset your delicate digestive state. Instead, a little salt and pepper should do the trick.
Ginger root is known to have antiemetic properties, meaning it may help to ease nausea and vomiting. Given that ginger can cause mild abdominal discomfort, heartburn, and gas in some people, it's best to start with a small dose. If you're pregnant, have gallstone disease, or take blood-thinning medication, be sure to consult with your physician before taking ginger.
Crackers or pretzels
For the same reason that rice and toast are commonly recommended for people with stomach flu, Seeni says crackers and pretzels are a good choice because they're made up of simple carbs that are quickly and easily digested, plus they are low in fat and fiber. That means they're less likely to upset your stomach.
Since most cereals are low in fat, free of spices, and made up of easily digestible simple carbs, they're relatively gentle on your stomach. Moreover, some cereals are fortified with essential vitamins and minerals, which may help you to get closer to meeting your daily needs while your gut is recovering.
Since dairy products can make diarrhea worse, and some people recovering from viral gastroenteritis have problems digesting lactose for up to a month or more after getting sick, it's advisable to eat cereal either dry or with unsweetened nut or oat milk.
Seeni says sugar can exacerbate or trigger diarrhea, so you may want to check the nutrition label first to make sure the cereal has no more than 10 grams of total sugar and 5 grams of added sugar per serving. Some good options include:
- Wheaties, 5 grams of sugar per cup
- Original Cheerios, 1 gram of sugar per cup
- Corn Chex, 3.2 grams of sugar per cup
Like rice, oatmeal is another bland food that's typically easy to tolerate when your stomach is upset. Not only that, but it's a good source of soluble fiber, which can help bind and add bulk to your stool when you're experiencing diarrhea.
According to The Harvard School of Public Health, the breakdown of oat fiber has been found to increase the diversity of gut microbiota, which may improve diarrhea, among other digestive issues. To avoid aggravating any potential GI issues, it's best to cook oats in water rather than milk and limit how much sugar you add. Keep in mind that instant or quick-cook oats will be the easiest to digest — but if you only have rolled oats or steel-cut oats, you can break them into smaller pieces in a food processor or soak them overnight.
Many fruits contain up to 80–90% water, which means that eating them could help your hydration efforts while recovering from the stomach flu. Fruit also contains a wide variety of vitamins and minerals that can help to support your immune system, as well as repair tissues. However, it's best to opt for fruits that are low in sugar to avoid aggravating diarrhea. Some general examples of low-sugar fruits include grapefruits, blackberries, and apples.
EggsOne of the safest high-protein foods to eat when you have the stomach flu is eggs. To avoid worsening any diarrhea, hard boil or poach your egg and avoid adding oil, dairy, or spices.
What to drink when you have the stomach flu
Fluid loss from symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration — which, if it becomes severe, must be treated immediately at a hospital. That's why experts say it's critical to drink enough of the right liquids while recovering. According to Seeni, signs of dehydration include:
- An intense feeling of thirst
- Dry mouth and throat
- Dark-colored urine
- Less frequent urination
- Dry skin
- Dizziness or lightheadedness when standing up
- The inability to sweat
Experts recommend drinking the following liquids when you have the stomach flu:
Due to its lack of flavor, sugar, or caffeine, experts agree that water is by far the best liquid to drink when you're recovering from the stomach flu.
"Clear liquids such as water are easily digested and help replenish fluids lost due to diarrhea and vomiting," says Seeni. "Wait until two hours have passed since your last episode of vomiting, and start with small frequent sips."
As you're easing back into eating foods, experts say broth-based soups can offer an excellent transition from a liquid diet while also helping you to stay hydrated.
According to Seeni, broth can be a good source of sodium — which is an important electrolyte that's often lost as a result of frequent vomiting and diarrhea. However, Moreno adds that bone, chicken, and beef broth alike can be too high in sodium, which is why he recommends specifically seeking out a low-sodium option or diluting it with water.
While some juices may contain a notable concentration of certain vitamins, Moreno warns that many products are high in sugar, which can make diarrhea worse by pulling excess water into the gut. That's why he recommends mixing a clear juice — like apple juice — with water (using a 1:1 ratio) to decrease the sugar content while helping with hydration.
A 2016 study found that children with a stomach bug who tried this strategy were less likely to need IV rehydration or hospitalization compared to those who consumed electrolyte-enhanced drinks.
According to Seeni, herbal teas can be effective for rehydrating during stomach flu. Try to avoid caffeinated teas, which can dehydrate you further. If you're experiencing nausea, she advises drinking tea with ginger or peppermint — both of which may help to decrease that particular symptom.
After experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, Seeni says electrolyte-enhanced drinks like Pedialyte may be a good choice of beverage because it has an optimal balance of sugar and electrolytes.
"If you or your kids are having trouble keeping liquids down, taking small sips of Pedialyte would be a good start," she says. "After that, increase the amount as much as you are able."
Another example is coconut water, which can help your body to rehydrate by supplying fluids while also replenishing important minerals you lost, says Seeni. "Replacing lost fluids and electrolytes is the important treatment of stomach flu. Oral rehydration solutions are often recommended at the first onset of diarrhea and vomiting, especially for infants and children," says Seeni.
Although sports drinks help replenish fluids and electrolytes, some can be high in sugar. Hence, Moreno suggests diluting them with water. Moreover, the CDC reports that non-caffeinated sports drinks can help with mild dehydration, but they may not replace important nutrients and minerals.
Breast milk for infants
Since infants can become dehydrated very quickly, Moreno says it's advisable to continue supplying them with breast milk while they're recovering from gastroenteritis. However, if you're ever uncertain about what your infant can tolerate, he recommends calling your pediatrician for specific guidance.
"Breast milk for infants may help in fighting diarrhea," Seeni tells Insider. "Since vomiting and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, they can be very dangerous. Breast milk is easily digested and more likely to stay down when your baby is sick."
What foods and drinks to avoid when you have the stomach flu
Some foods and drinks can make stomach flu symptoms worse. Here's what experts recommend avoiding:
Apple cider vinegar: According to Moreno and Woody, it's important to stay away from acidic substances, which can irritate your stomach and thus trigger stomach pain, nausea, or other GI symptoms. Apple cider vinegar is highly acidic, so it's best to exercise caution in consuming it while you have the stomach flu.
Fatty foods: Full-fat dairy products, fried foods, certain types and cuts of red meat, and nut butters can be high in fat — which isn't ideal when you have the stomach flu. Since these foods are more difficult to digest, Moreno advises avoiding them while your gut is recovering.
"High-fat foods could make you feel queasy and may lead to diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting," says Seeni. "Also, when sick with the stomach flu, some people have issues digesting lactose, a protein in milk and milk products."
Spicy foods: You probably won't be in the mood for spicy food when you have the stomach flu, but in case you have a hankering, it's best to avoid because experts say eating it can worsen gastritis symptoms. You can gradually reintroduce spices and seasoning as you begin to recover.
"Gentle spices like cinnamon can have anti-inflammatory properties but hot spices could leave you running to the bathroom," says Seeni. "Spicy foods may also trigger nausea and vomiting for some people."
Citrus fruit: Due to their high acid content, you might want to limit your consumption of citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes — depending on the severity of your symptoms.
Coffee: Since coffee can make your intestines contract, Seeni says to avoid it. She also points out that caffeinated drinks can impair your sleep quality, which may hinder your recovery from the stomach flu.
Alcohol: Alcohol acts as a diuretic, meaning it causes your body to flush fluids out of your system more quickly. For this reason, Oz recommends staying away from any alcoholic beverages, as they can further dehydrate you.
When you're recovering from the stomach flu, spicy, high-fat, sugary, and acidic foods and drinks should be avoided — as should coffee and alcoholic beverages.
"Staying away from these foods and drinks will help reduce nausea and vomiting, as well as diarrhea, cramping, bloating, and gas," says Woody.
The most important thing to focus on while recovering is hydration — ideally by drinking plenty of water, herbal tea, and other clear or diluted liquids, sucking on ice chips, and consuming broth.
Bland foods like crackers, toast, dry low-sugar cereal, potatoes, apple sauce, bananas, and rice may also be tolerable, and you can slowly introduce foods like fruit, steamed vegetables, and eggs for more nutritional variety.
If you suspect you need treatment for dehydration or other severe symptoms, seek immediate care from medical professionals.
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