Nutrition during illness

Lesley Dobson ( 18 August 2015 )

Whether you've had a virus, are recovering from an operation or are living with a long-term medical condition, you need to eat the right types of food.



There's nothing like a streaming cold or a bout of flu to knock your appetite for six. In the short term that may seem like an advantage if you could do with losing a few lbs - at least you would see some benefit from feeling so lousy. But eating properly is an important part of your recovery, especially if you have a condition like diabetes, heart problems or cancer, or are convalescing after an operation.

‘If you lose weight it can put you at greater risk of infections,’ explains Victoria Taylor a dietitian with the British Heart Foundation. ‘If you are underweight, it can affect your immune system, so you have to be careful. Your body needs to keep itself on an even keel.’

‘Weight loss can creep up on us. We don’t all weigh ourselves regularly, but you may notice that your clothes or rings are getting looser. If you lose weight very quickly, you tend to lose muscle rather than fat, which you don’t want to do. It’s important to catch weight loss at an early stage, so watch out for warning signs. And if you are losing weight unintentionally you should see your practice nurse or GP.’

Just not hungry?

‘When you’re unwell, one of the first things to go is your appetite,’ says Victoria. ‘Try having more frequent meals, or little snacks throughout the day, like a piece of toast, then some milk, and later on a piece of fruit.’ If you’re really finding it difficult to eat, having small snacks throughout the day can be much less daunting than sitting down to a plateful of food at your regular mealtimes.

Treatment for some conditions – cancer for instance – is known to affect appetite. Keeping your nutritional intake up can be difficult if you never feel like eating, but there are a few tactics you can try which may help.

  • Make mealtimes pleasant.
  • Sit down to eat at an attractively-laid table, or play some music that you like.
  • Don’t drink just before meal times, as liquids can fill you up and stop you eating enough food.
  • Work out when you feel your best – morning, afternoon or evening - and eat then.
  • On the other hand, if you never feel hungry it may be a good idea to eat at certain times so it becomes part of your daily routine.

‘Make sure you have store cupboard foods, such as tinned fruit and juice, frozen vegetables, packets of rice and pasta and tinned oily fish,’ advises Victoria Taylor of the BHF. ‘And call on your support network, people who could bring something round for you to eat, or stash meals in your freezer.’

After an operation

A general anaesthetic doesn’t just affect you for the period you’re unconscious, it can affect you for some hours or in some cases even days afterwards. Combined with the after-effects of your operation, it can delay the return of your appetite.

‘In the post-operative period start eating again slowly, with small, frequent meals,’ says Victoria Taylor. When you’re recovering after surgery (or an infection) you may find that you need to eat more than usual. But don’t just stock up on carbohydrates, you need to keep to a balanced diet with enough protein to help you body carry out repairs.

Protein - why you need it

Protein is vital for the process of healing wounds,’ says Jacqui Lowdon, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. ‘So it’s important to include protein in your diet. If you still aren’t feeling well, the chances are good that you won’t feel like tucking into a steak, but you can get protein from a variety of sources, such as chicken, cheese, milk, eggs, fish, tofu and soya.’

‘Fats and carbohydrates are also important in helping wounds to heal. They stop your body using protein as an energy source, allowing it to be used to heal tissue.’

Vitamins and minerals also play their part in your recovery after an operation:

  • Vitamin A has an anti-oxidant effect, and helps your immune system
  • Vitamin B complex helps with the formation of antibodies (another boost to your immune system)
  • Iron prevents anaemia and zinc helps with cell formation

Eating a good range of foods, including fruits and vegetables, should give you the balanced diet that you need. However if you’re concerned that you aren’t eating enough different foods to supply yourself with good nutrition, talk to your doctor.

People living with some long-term conditions may need to tailor their diets specifically to help relieve their symptoms or keep them under control.

Diabetes

People with diabetes need to be especially careful about their nutrition during an illness. ‘Diabetics are recommended to follow a diet that’s low in saturated fat, salt and sugar and high in fibre, fruits and vegetables. If you have diabetes you should stick to the basic healthy eating guidelines,’ says Glenys Jones, Nutritionist at MRC Human Nutrition Research.

‘However, when you’re ill this can be hard to maintain. One of the body’s responses to being ill is to increase glucose production, so blood glucose has a tendency to rise, so increasing your body’s basic insulin requirements. It’s essential, if you control your diabetes through insulin, that you continue taking your insulin, even if you aren’t eating as much as usual, as this reduces your risk of ketoacidosis (a life-threatening condition caused by a lack of insulin).’

It’s also important to drink plenty of fluids – aim for at least three litres of fluid (five pints) every 24 hours. Try to eat regularly, so that you have an even distribution of carbohydrates through the day, to keep your blood glucose levels steady.

‘If you find it difficult to eat solid food, one way to maintain your carbohydrate intake is with drinks and soups,’ says Glenys Jones. ‘200-250ml of sports energy drinks, milk, unsweetened fruit juice and thickened creamed soups are good examples of energy drinks to try when you can’t manage solids.And if you can’t eat or drink anything, or can’t keep anything down, see your GP or diabetes care team.’

Find out how much fluid you need to consume

Osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis

Living with arthritis - whether it's osteoarthritis (which is due to wear and tear) or rheumatoid arthritis (where the joint lining swells and the joint surface comes under attack) - can mean having to cope daily with pain and inflammation. By adjusting your diet you can help to reduce the effect these conditions have on your body, and reduce your discomfort.

Keeping to a healthy weight is important, advises the British Dietetic Association. If you have too much body fat it pushes up the amount of inflammation in your body and makes your joints more painful.

Steer clear of saturated fats (found in processed foods and full-fat dairy foods) and omega-6 poyunsaturates (often in corn and sunflower-based oils and margarines) that can increase inflammation and pain. Instead, chose monounsaturates, found in olive oil and margarines made from olive oil, and blended vegetable oils that are rich in monounsaturates, neutral fats that don’t encourage or worsen inflammation.

A Mediterranean style diet, with small amounts of lean meat, plenty of vegetables and fruit of different types and colours as well as monounsaturated fats, helps your body mop up the chemicals which cause inflammation.

Oily fish are a good source of omega-3 polyunsaturates (also known as fish oils) that reduce inflammation, and as an added bonus, cut your risk of heart disease. Not sure which fish to chose? Go for those with darker flesh, like salmon, tuna (fresh tuna only), sardines, mackerel and herring, all of which are rich in fish oils.

Read more about the healthy fats you need in your diet


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.