After experiencing the stomach flu or food poisoning, it might be hard to think about eating. However, the right foods, combined with drinking lots of fluids, can actually help speed up your body’s recovery. In most cases, the best way to recuperate from the stomach flu or food poisoning is to prevent dehydration and replace the fluids and electrolytes that your body has lost. It’s important to understand when you can and should start eating again and what to eat after food poisoning or the stomach flu. I’ll share what foods and liquids are best for your sensitive stomach, and what foods to avoid.
What Is the Stomach Flu (Stomach Bug)?
We’ve all suffered through the stomach flu or stomach bug at some point in our lives. Both names are layman’s terms for the same condition, which is officially called gastroenteritis.
This intestinal infection is brought on by a virus that causes inflammation in your stomach and intestines. There’s no treatment for this viral infection, but you can take preventive measures to avoid getting sick.
Thorough and frequent hand washing is your best defense against gastroenteritis. Prevention is important, since the stomach flu is contagious and typically occurs after contact with an infected person.
Even though the stomach flu shares the same name and some of the same symptoms as the regular flu, they are different conditions. As you’ll see from the listed symptoms below, the stomach flu primarily affects the gastrointestinal tract. Meanwhile, influenza affects the respiratory tract but can also involve the gastrointestinal tract.
Common Symptoms of Stomach Flu/Stomach Bug
Common stomach flu symptoms include:
As you may already know from experience, it’s quite common for someone with the stomach flu to suffer from one or more of these symptoms simultaneously.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Unlike the stomach flu, which is a viral infection, food poisoning is caused by consuming food or water that has been contaminated with certain bacteria, viruses or parasites, or by toxins produced by those organisms.
Some of the most common contaminants that cause food poisoning include:
- Escherichia coli (E. coli)
- Hepatitis A
There’s a good reason why eating raw cookie dough is a big no-no—consuming raw eggs that have been tainted with salmonella or flour contaminated with E. coli can result in food poisoning. You can also come down with food poisoning after eating raw or undercooked poultry, meat, seafood or dairy. Another common source of food poisoning is fried rice that’s been sitting out in warm temperatures for too long.
The bacteria that cause food poisoning can be spread by an infected food handler, or from contaminated water, knives, countertops, or cutting boards. Like the stomach flu, prevention is the best approach to avoid food poisoning. The most obvious measure would be to stay away from contaminated food and water. But since we often don’t know what’s been tainted until it’s too late, it’s recommended to be mindful around food, and to take care to properly cook, clean, handle, and store it.
Common Symptoms of Food Poisoning
The symptoms of food poisoning are much the same as those caused by a bout of stomach flu. It’s also quite common for someone to suffer from one or more of these symptoms simultaneously.
Common food poisoning symptoms include:
How Can You Tell the Difference Between Stomach Flu and Food Poisoning?
If there’s little to no difference between stomach flu and food poisoning symptoms, how do we tell them apart? In my experience, the main way to tell the two conditions apart is by taking a careful look at the patient’s background and recent history. With food poisoning, there is often a history of eating food that is contaminated or suspected to be contaminated. Food poisoning usually comes on quite quickly after eating contaminated food (within a few hours) and tends to go away within a few hours to days. Meanwhile, depending upon the person and severity, stomach flu can last up to ten days.
What Can You Do at Home to Support Gut Healing?
Fluids and food are central to helping your body regain its strength after the stomach flu or food poisoning. Though your appetite may be non-existent, drinking the right liquids and eating the right foods can help speed up your recovery. This is because your body has lost a lot of fluids, nutrients and electrolytes due to vomiting and diarrhea. You need to replace them to prevent dehydration, otherwise you’ll feel worse.
Whether you’re suffering from the stomach flu or food poisoning, or whether you’re vomiting or have diarrhea (and especially if you have both), the main rule is to do your best to hydrate—and stay hydrated. In fact, drinking is something you should try to do from the time your first symptom rears its ugly head. While water is best, you can try herbal teas, sports drinks, or Pedialyte as long as you are able to keep them down. Small sips every few minutes will go a long way to help stay hydrated.
How Soon Can I Eat and Drink After Vomiting and/or Diarrhea?
Other than drinking (preferably non-sugary liquids) to stay hydrated, there are no hard and fast rules about when and what to eat after food poisoning or stomach bug symptoms (like vomiting and diarrhea) have subsided. It’s more about what you can tolerate. Every patient reacts differently to food—or to the idea of eating again. It’s natural to temporarily lose your appetite when experiencing the stomach flu or food poisoning. Whenever your appetite does return, you can go back to eating, even if you still have diarrhea. Most medical experts do not recommend fasting or following a restricted diet when you have diarrhea. This is to help your body restore its energy and to regain its lost fluids, nutrients and electrolytes. Your gage will be how well you tolerate food.
What Foods Can I Eat After Vomiting and/or Diarrhea?
When your stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea have fully or partially subsided, you may feel up to eating again. The goal is to reintroduce bland foods that are easy for your stomach to digest. The most recommended foods to eat after the stomach flu, food poisoning or a regular stomach ache are part of what’s known as the BRAT diet. BRAT stands for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. These particular foods are ideal because of their blandness and because they’re easy to digest. Plus, their high starch content will help bind your stool together, which may reduce bouts of continued diarrhea. BRAT foods are considered low-residual, meaning they stay in your stomach for less time.
Are There Other Foods I Can Eat After Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning?
If you can stomach the idea of eating and drinking again, and you’ve slowly started reintroducing bland foods, there are more recommendations beyond the BRAT diet. Here are some additional foods that may help get your appetite and strength back.
- Coconut water: As long as it doesn’t have added sugar, coconut water can be an appealing way to get you to drink more than you normally would. However, it isn’t any healthier than regular water.
- Pedialyte: This contains electrolytes, which your body loses through vomiting and diarrhea, and which your body needs to function properly. Pedialyte allows you to replenish electrolytes and helps you retain fluid to avoid dehydration.
- Yogurt: Since dairy products are less bland than any of the BRAT foods, they might be more tough on your stomach. However, if you can tolerate yogurt, it might be good for your stomach, especially if it contains probiotics, which help with digestion. Plus, yogurt contains fluid, which helps to stay hydrated.
- Soup/broth: Besides the obvious, that these water-based soups and broths are great for hydration, they can be a great base for adding in natural herbs, like ginger, fennel, mint, licorice root, etc., which contain natural anti-inflammatory properties that can help soothe your stomach and aid with digestion.
- Teas: Decaffeinated teas with natural, homeopathic ingredients, like peppermint or spearmint, ginger, or chamomile, can soothe your stomach, reduce inflammation, curb nausea and hydrate you.
- Crackers/saltines: These crackers are bland and gentle on your stomach, and they also contain salt. Salt helps retain fluids, so it’s recommended when you’re ready to start eating again.
What Not to Eat After Stomach Flu or Food Poisoning
While doctors generally agree that you can eat anything your stomach can tolerate, it’s best to avoid foods that are spicy and fatty. These can be much harder for your stomach to digest than the bland BRAT diet.
You may want to be cautious of dairy products, even with probiotics, since they may irritate your stomach. I would also caution you against eating a big meal.
Instead, start slowly with small meals to see how your stomach handles the food. When you’re just starting to eat again, avoid foods with strong odors, as they may trigger nausea and/or vomiting.
The bottom line is to use common sense. Listen to your body about what foods your stomach can and cannot tolerate.
Symptoms to Watch for and When to Seek Help
As I’ve mentioned throughout this article, severe dehydration is what doctors are most concerned about when it comes to stomach flu and food poisoning. Therefore, if you’re unable to hold down any fluids, it’s recommended to see a doctor. Here are some other potential warning signs to watch for. These may indicate the need for medical attention:
- If you’re pale or light-headed
- If there’s blood in your stool or diarrhea
- If diarrhea lasts for more than a week
- If you’re having severe abdominal pain
- If you’re over 65, pregnant, or have diabetes
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or are considered a high-risk case, it’s time to speak to your doctor. During your visit, the doctor will probably ask for your medical history, do a physical exam, and take stool and blood tests. These will all help provide a diagnosis and determine if additional treatment is needed.
One additional “red flag” to know about is if you’ve recently been hospitalized or have used antibiotics in the last 3-6 months. If so, and you experience any of the concerning symptoms, you could have a C. diff bacterial infection.
This infection can develop after taking antibiotics and can cause severe abdominal pain, profuse diarrhea, fever, nausea, among other severe symptoms. Therefore, it’s worth talking to your doctor if any of these symptoms or indicators sound familiar.
How K Health Can Help
In most cases, symptoms for the stomach flu and food poisoning are mild and last only a short time. If you have any other questions about what to eat after food poisoning or stomach flu, speak to a doctor.
Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app? Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.