Healthy Hints

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Hungry for truth

By Eric Wilkins, Staff Writer

It’s always remarkable what people will believe without question. In an increasingly skeptical world where the truth can be found with a quick Google search, it’s amusing to which old adages manage to survive and continue to influence our lives. “Feed a cold, starve a fever,” is a common saying that you might sometimes see flip-flopped to read, “Feed a fever, starve a cold,” among other variations—but neither is particularly helpful.

When most people need advice about their health, they tend to seek out a medical professional—as is only logical. They don’t go running to their local grocery clerk, or construction worker, or banker; it just wouldn’t make sense. Therefore, why do we pay such attention to ancient sayings without so much as a thought as to who came up with them?

There is some dispute on the origin of “Feed a cold, starve a fever.” Some credit the dictionary writer of the late 1500s, Withals, although the origin of the phrase is likely from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 13th century. The exact quote is, “Fede a cold and starb ob feber,” which essentially translates to, “Feed a cold and die of fever/If you feed a cold, you will catch a fever and die.” No matter how one chooses to read the old English, keep in mind that it’s still medical advice from the Father of English Literature, not a licensed physician.

As for actual evidence to support Chaucer’s mangled words of wisdom, there really isn’t much. A study by a team of Dutch scientists revealed that starving versus feeding had an effect on the immune system, but their sample size was small (six men) and relatively inconclusive.

While Chaucer likely had the best of intentions, it makes little sense to follow the saying (in any of its forms) when one stops to think about it. When you’re sick, is it really the greatest idea to withhold vital nutrients from your body? While digesting food may slightly detract from your system’s ability to fight, that’s no reason to starve yourself. In either case, whether it is a cold or a fever, one should at the very least maintain a healthy flow of fluids. It’s a situation in which it’s generally safe to listen to your body; if you’re hungry, eat, if you’re thirsty, drink.