Why sick people need good meals and plenty to drink

Eating well helps to fight infections

Sick people should eat well even if they are not active. They need nutrients to keep alive, fight infections and replace lost nutrients.

Infection often reduces appetite. It also increases the need for some nutrients if:

  • nutrients are poorly absorbed by the gut;
  • the body uses nutrients faster than usual (e.g. to repair the immune system).
Infections can cause malnutrition. Malnutrition makes infections worse

If sick people do not eat enough, they use their own body fat and muscles for energy and nutrients. They lose weight and become undernourished. Their immune systems may become less effective and they are less able to fight infections.

Sick people often lose or use more water than usual (e.g. during diarrhoea or fever). They need plenty of clean, safe drinks.

Helping sick children and adults to eat well

Feed sick people frequently and give them plenty to drink

Advise families to:

  • offer small amounts of food frequently, especially if the person is not hungry. Often a sick person prefers soft foods (e.g. gruel, mashed bananas or soup) or sweet foods. For a few days it does not matter what the person eats, provided he or she eats often;
  • give a sick person plenty to drink every 1-2 hours. For example, give boiled water, fresh fruit juice, coconut water, sodas, soup or watery porridge. Or give boiled or soured milk or milky tea unless the person has diarrhoea;
  • prepare food and drinks in a clean, safe way (see Topic 4) to prevent foodborne infections

If people are ill for more than a few days, they need a variety of foods to help their immune systems recover and to prevent weight loss (see Box 16). So families should give small, frequent meals that contain a combination of foods (see Topic 3). Adding a little fat-rich food or sugar is an easy way to increase energy without making the meal too big and bulky; including a variety of fruits and vegetables provides micronutrients.

If a young, breastfeeding child is sick, the mother should breastfeed more often. Breastmilk may be the only food and drink the child wants. Advise the mother to express her milk and feed it from a small cup or spoon if a child is too ill to suckle.

In areas where vitamin A deficiency is a problem, children with measles, diarrhoea, respiratory infections or malnutrition often benefit from vitamin A supplements. However, when giving these, health workers should emphasize the need for vitamin A-rich foods as well.

Feeding people with diarrhoea

People with diarrhoea need extra liquids to drink

Children and adults with diarrhoea and/or vomiting lose much water and so must drink frequently to prevent dehydration. Suitable drinks are oral rehydration solution made from packets of oral rehydration salts (from the clinic or pharmacy) or ordinary home-made fluids containing normal amounts of salt, such as soups or rice water.

People with diarrhoea must also eat because food helps the gut to recover and absorb water. Breastfeeding children who have diarrhoea should breastfeed frequently.

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