Eat More Fiber for Healthier Lungs

Medically reviewed in April 2021

If you get your recommended amount of dietary fiber each day, you’re one of the elite few. Less than 3% of Americans eat enough fiber. For everyone else, it’s time to start getting more. Fiber can help stave off heart disease and stroke, and help prevent or control diabetes. It’s good for your waistline, too, since fiber may fill you up and keep your weight down.

Need another reason to get more fiber? A study published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society in 2016 has shown fiber may also help your lungs work better.

Another benefit of fiber
The study analyzed the data of more than 1,900 men and women in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys (NHANES). The researchers looked at people’s fiber intakes and at lung function using a device called a spirometer.

The researchers found that people who ate the most fiber had lung function measurements that were 2.4% and 2.8% better than those who ate the least. They also found that the source of the fiber mattered. Eating lots of fruits, vegetables and legumes was associated with increased lung function, but eating whole grains was not. Other studies, however, suggest that whole grains—and particularly cereal grains—are great for lungs, too. One large study of more than 367,000 people published in BMC Medicine in 2015 showed that consuming more whole grains lowered the chance of death from respiratory ailments and several other causes.

How fiber helps
The study authors think fiber bolsters lung function for two reasons. The first is that fiber fights inflammation. Inflammation is a key characteristic of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Fiber helps keep C-reactive protein, a molecule that’s a sign of inflammation and that’s been linked to worse lung function, in check,

For the second way fiber helps, you have to travel a little south of the lungs. Eating enough fiber changes the mix of microorganisms that live in your gut. This results in more production of short-chain fatty acids, which protect lungs, according to the researchers.

Eat for your lungs
The good news is that some very healthy ways of eating, such as the DASH Diet and the Mediterranean diet, already call for lots of fiber. 

Many fiber-rich foods deliver lots of antioxidants, which also have been shown to help breathing. Antioxidants are micronutrients that prevent cell damage. Examples include vitamin C, beta-carotene and selenium.

Fiber doesn’t have to mean boring bran. Foods like these are also packed with it:

  • Beans
  • Artichokes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Peas
  • Berries
  • Apples
  • High-fiber breakfast cereal
  • Brown rice or quinoa
  • Whole-grain pasta and bread

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