Whether you’re trying to tough it out through the stomach flu or just finished a hearty meal, a stomach ache can leave you feeling miserable—especially during the holidays. And while your next meal may be the last thing on your mind, food can actually help you settle your stomach.
“It’s easy to forget that food, which is we usually turn to because we’re hungry or for a social gathering, is medicine,” says Donald Zeller, MD, FAAFP, family medicine physician at Paoli Hospital. “Eating the right foods can help alleviate the symptoms of an upset stomach, like gas, bloating, cramps and diarrhea.”
So, next time you’re coping with symptoms like these, which foods should you turn to? Dr. Zeller offers his advice for which foods to pick and which ones to pass on.
Starchy foods, like plain toast, rice, crackers, white potatoes, and oat bran, might seem like heavy foods and questionable options for foods to eat when you’re feeling sick. But foods like these offer multiple benefits—they require less ”work” by the gut to digest than fats and proteins, can coat the lining of your stomach and ease digestion, and they won’t aggravate acid reflux.
Dairy products like milk and cheese top the list of items you should avoid when you’re trying to quiet a rumbling tummy, especially if you’re already lactose-intolerant.
Sugary foods generally aren’t recommended for an unsettled stomach but, if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, bananas are a safe bet. It’s a fruit that’s high in sugar and calories to keep you feeling full, but still easy for your stomach to digest.
Pass: Caffeine and alcohol
If you’ve got a full stomach, pass on the soda and cocktails. Beverages in these categories can further irritate the stomach lining. If you have diarrhea, caffeine could also worsen your symptoms, as drinks like coffee and soda can loosen your stool.
Pick: Water, tea and electrolytes
Instead of bubbly or caffeinated beverages, opt for a glass of water or hot tea. Peppermint and chamomile teas are noted for their ability to help soothe the inflammation that accompanies an upset stomach. Ginger can be particularly soothing to an upset stomach: one trick is to pour some ginger ale an hour ahead to “get the fizz out” and let it go flat before drinking.
If you’ve been vomiting or had diarrhea as part of a stomach virus, it’s important to rehydrate with sports drinks that are high in electrolytes, as well.
Pass: Processed foods
Most of the store-bought snacks you’ll find in your kitchen—like cookies, chips, and canned soups—fall under the category of processed foods. While it may be tempting to choose one of these because they’re easy to access, take a quick trip to the grocery store for some safer options to settle your stomach sooner.
One packaged food you can count on when your stomach is upset? Applesauce. This snack, which has a long shelf life, is easily digestible, can calm the stomach, and help relieve diarrhea.
While eating the right foods can help you get back on track after a big meal or being sidelined by a stomach virus, some stomachaches warrant a visit to the doctor’s office.
“If you have a fever, bloating, abdominal pain or tenderness, vomiting or diarrhea that lasts for more than a few days, make an appointment with your physician. They can help you diagnose the cause of your stomach pain, and recommend treatment options,” says Dr. Zeller.