Breathe Better With 6 Tips for Eating With COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes breathing difficult; your diet shouldn't make it any harder.

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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive condition that makes breathing hard, and to date, there is no cure. COPD affects 16 million Americans, and can cause coughing that produces mucus, wheezing and shortness of breath. In 2015, this condition was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.

The respiratory condition can be treated with medication, pulmonary rehabilitation, oxygen therapy and surgery. Some healthy habits can make these treatments more effective. Kicking your tobacco habit, maintaining a healthy weight and stocking your fridge with COPD-friendly eats are good places to start.

There’s no specific diet for COPD, but adopting certain eating strategies and avoiding foods that trigger symptoms can help. Here’s what you need to know about eating well with this condition, from Trenton Nauser, MD, a board-certified pulmonologist with Menorah Pulmonary and Critical Care Consultants in Overland Park, Kansas.

Medically reviewed in September 2018.

Snack on smaller meals

2 / 7 Snack on smaller meals

Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms of COPD, and large meals can make it worse. There are two main reasons you may struggle to breathe after a large meal.

First, as food enters your stomach, it expands. A whopping meal can cause the stomach to swell and press against the lungs. This can make inhaling and exhaling a challenge.

The second? “Large meals produce a great deal of carbon dioxide that has to be breathed out, so the amount of work that has to be done to breathe increases,” Dr. Nauser says.

There’s a simple solution: Eat smaller portions. The American Lung Association recommends eating between four and six smaller meals throughout the day. So, stock your fridge, work desk and even your purse with healthy snacks to munch anytime hunger strikes.

Avoid foods that make you gassy

3 / 7 Avoid foods that make you gassy

Portion size matters, but so do the types of foods you eat. Certain foods, even in small quantities, can cause gas and bloating, which can put a strain on your breathing.

“Avoid foods that lead to abdominal distention, and make you feel bloated, because it can aggravate your breathing,” Nauser recommends.

Greasy, fried foods digest slowly; the extra time they take to digest can cause a buildup of gas. Foods like beans, cabbage, lentils and broccoli are major gas producers, so it may be a good idea to limit your consumption (if you find they bother you). Not all causes of belly bloat are so obvious, however. Carbonated beverages and chewing gum allow excess air into the body, which can make you a bit gassier than usual.

Although cutting out some of these foods is one way to improve your breathing, Nauser warns that completely eliminating any food from your diet could be potentially dangerous for your overall health. Our bodies thrive on a variety of nutrients, so speak with your healthcare provider before swearing off entire food groups.

Load up on fruits and veggies

4 / 7 Load up on fruits and veggies

Fruits and veggies are the cornerstone of any healthy diet, but nutrient-rich produce may be especially important for those with COPD. Research has linked oxidative stress to inflammation in the airways and other parts of the respiratory system.

Oxidative stress is an imbalance between harmful free radicals and antioxidants, or substances that help protect your body’s cells from damage. COPD has been characterized by an increase in systemic inflammation and relieving it—with the help of antioxidants or otherwise—may help improve the condition.

Results from a three-year study of 120 people with COPD suggests an association between antioxidant-rich diets and improvement of lung function in those with the condition. Antioxidants are abundant in foods like apples, berries, asparagus and sweet potatoes.

Give your diet an antioxidant boost by adding dishes like sweet mixed berry salsa and flavorful roasted asparagus to your repertoire.

Limit your sodium intake

5 / 7 Limit your sodium intake

Sodium is a mineral your body needs, but too much could hurt your health. Sodium is found in canned soup and packaged goods, and is sprinkled into almost all restaurant dishes.

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends adults limit sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams per day, or about one teaspoon of salt. The average American’s intake is between 2,000 and 4,500 milligrams.    

Everyone should mind their salt grinders, but those with COPD should be especially careful. “People with COPD, particularly when it's advanced, tend to swell in their feet and legs, so restricting sodium can reduce that,” says Nauser. Sodium-rich foods can cause your body to hold onto excess water, which can worsen swelling.

There are some simple tricks to cut back your consumption:

  • Flavor your food with herbs and spices instead of salt
  • Make your own sauces and dressings
  • Rinse canned vegetables
  • When purchasing prepackaged goods, pick lower sodium options
Eat plenty of protein

6 / 7 Eat plenty of protein

Every cell in your body contains protein, which is necessary for the growth and repair of each of our body’s cells.

Adults should strive to consume the daily recommended amounts of this nutrient—46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. But, Nauser suggests eating an adequate amount of protein is especially important for those with COPD. Protein can help keep the muscles in your respiratory system strong, like those in your lungs, which can help boost your breathing.

Foods like eggs, low-fat cheese, poultry, fish, beef and nuts are all good sources of protein, and should be incorporated into a healthy diet. Looking to whip up a new dish? Give this protein-packed one-pan chicken and potato dish a try! This tasty meal contains almost 33 grams of protein per serving, and cleanup is a breeze!

This recipe also delivers a dose of olive oil, a heart-healthy fat that may also help with COPD. Adding fat and reducing sugar in your meals can help alleviate symptoms by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide your body produces during digestion.

Pack more healthy fats into your day by snacking on an apple and tablespoon of all natural peanut butter.

Watch your weight

7 / 7 Watch your weight

Overtime, COPD can lead to weight fluctuations, in both directions. An inability to exercise and some medications can cause weight gain. On the other hand, COPD forces the body to work much harder to breathe, which burns more calories than normal. Other medications can decrease appetite, and coupled with the increased calorie burn, can cause unplanned weight loss.

There are risks for both overweight and underweight people, so maintaining a healthy weight is important. Excess weight can restrict the major breathing muscle from working normally. This reduces the ability to expand the lungs and take a deep breath, which can make breathing more difficult.

Being underweight might be even worse. Without adequate nutrients, lung muscles weaken, making breathing in the short term a challenge. “We know being underweight has been associated with a shorter survival in COPD, so we work with patients to improve their nutrition, strengthen respiratory muscles and improve their quality of life,” says Nauser.

If your scale shifts than a few pounds, make an appointment to speak with your doctor about ways you can modify your diet for better health.

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