Parents have probably been dishing out tidbits of folk wisdom about food and illness since shortly after Adam took a bite of that fateful apple — or since one of our ape-like foremothers fed her offspring certain berries when they started to sneeze and sniffle. But which beliefs are simply superstitions — and which contain kernels of truth? Feed a cold, starve a fever
Not true. Sure, your child’s appetite dwindles when she’s feeling under the weather, but regardless of whether the culprit is a cold or a fever, the body needs fuel (read: calories) to mount an attack against the virus or bacteria that’s at the root of the illness. “You still need a bit of food as a source of energy,” explains Rita Patel, a naturo-pathic doctor who’s also an assistant professor and clinic supervisor at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine in Toronto. “I tell people, don’t starve anything!” And Fabian Gorodzinsky, a London, Ont., paediatrician and Canadian Paediatric Society spokesperson, concurs, adding that offering nutrient-rich foods is doubly important when kids are sick. “If you don’t have good nutrition, you can’t heal.”
Milk makes more mucus in kids with colds
Probably not true. A lot of people swallow this old saying, but research indicates the milk-mucus connection may be a myth: At least two studies have found that, in adults with a cold virus, drinking milk did not change phlegm production. The link is probably in the mind of the drinker: People who believed milk stepped up nasal secretions reported feeling more mucusy after drinking milk than those who held no such conviction. Some doctors conjecture that the texture of milk, and even soy-based substitutes, may simply make phlegm feel thicker. So what’s the bottom line? According to Gorodzinsky, keeping your child well nourished and hydrated is what’s important — so don’t hide the milk jug if that’s all he wants to drink while he’s sick.
Cranberry juice can fend off bladder infections
Possibly true. Some research suggests a daily dose of the beverage can cut the odds for women who are prone to repeated urinary tract infections (UTIs), possibly by preventing bacteria from sticking to the bladder and urethra (the tube that empties it). But does it work for kids? Two trials in children with nerve-related bladder- emptying problems found cranberry juice didn’t make a dent in infection risk, but it hasn’t been studied in kids without the condition. Experts are still divided over whether the preventive prescription works, says Gregor Reid, a professor of micro-biology, immunology and surgery at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.; however, he says choosing cranberry over other juices can’t hurt, and may help kids who get the occasional UTI. (He cautions, though, that kids who get repeated infections should see a urologist to rule out underlying problems.) Patel suggests using the unsweetened variety (available in health food stores).
Dark chocolate suppresses coughs
OK, we hope this is true! Chocolate, in the form of a drink made from roasted, crushed cocoa beans, is a traditional Jamaican cough remedy, and it turns out some scientific evidence shows that it really works. European scientists who tested theobromine (a substance in dark chocolate) found it was about 33 percent more effective than the cough suppressant codeine. Since a separate study showed the active ingredients in commercial cough syrups didn’t curb kids’ coughs any better than water, it may make more sense to dole out a few squares of dark chocolate instead.
Ginger ale settles an upset stomach
Not really. Ginger ale probably owes its reputation as soother of stomach ailments to its sweet, cold and bubbly properties, says Patel. While several studies show ginger seems to reduce nausea, many brands of the fizzy drink rely on artificial flavourings, and those that use the real root probably don’t contain enough to confer a benefit. (Too much ginger ale — or any other sugary beverage, including juice — can also exacerbate diarrhea, Gorodzinsky points out.) Consequently, “I usually recommend ginger tea over ginger ale,” says Patel. “If the child can’t drink it warm, cool it down and put a bit of honey in it.”
To make ginger tea: Grate 3 or 4 quarter-sized pieces of ginger root into 2 cups water, then boil it down to make 1 cup. Strain and serve.
Yogurt can prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea
Possibly true. Here’s the theory: When antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria in the intestine, giving their diarrhea-causing counterparts a chance to run riot, live-culture yogurt supplies fresh peacekeeping troops. And in at least one study, a daily dose of yogurt reduced the likelihood of diarrhea in adults taking antibiotics. Trouble is some brands may contain bacterial strains that aren’t hardy enough to survive in stomach acid. Nonetheless, the yummy prescription is probably worth a try, says Reid, who is also director of the Canadian Research and Development Centre for Probiotics at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ont. (He suggests eating yogurt an hour before or after taking each dose of antibiotic — it may be a hassle, but great if it works!) One thing that’s undoubtedly true, however: Yogurt is great for kids who temporarily can’t digest lactose (a sugar found in milk and dairy products) due to a recent bout of virus-related diarrhea. That’s because yogurt contains already-broken-down lactose, making it easier for your child’s tender tummy to tolerate it.
Chicken soup is good for more than the soul
Absolutely! This old-fashioned comfort food is ideal sick-day fare for several reasons. It’s loaded with liquid to prevent dehydration (a big concern when your little guy has diarrhea), and boiling breaks down nutrients so they’re more easily absorbed. “When you’re sick, the least amount of time you spend digesting your food, the better, so your body can put its efforts into fighting off the invader, whatever it is,” Patel says. (Your family doesn’t eat meat? Patel suggests substituting lentil or mung bean soup.) And whether you add noodles, matzo balls or rice porridge (jook or congee) to the stockpot, these complex carbohydrates provide energy.
A steaming cup of the concoction also helps ease your child’s cold symptoms. Not only do the warmth and fluid thin nasal secretions, the stock itself may possess medicinal properties. According to limited research carried out by Stephen Rennard, a pulmonary specialist and Larson professor of medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, chicken soup may soften the body’s assault against cold viruses — which is what causes much of the misery of a cold. He and his colleagues discovered chicken soup decreases the specific function of one type of white blood cell that’s implicated in cold symptoms.
But whatever healing properties these food-based remedies might have, one ingredient they share is at least as important: parental TLC. “People derive a lot of benefit from positive care and support,” notes Rennard, “and all of that gets folded into the cachet of chicken soup.”