If you have COPD, you might be surprised that your diet can improve your ability to breathe. What a healthy diet includes, however, varies according to the type of breathing disorder you have and your individual circumstances including your weight, other health issues, and medications that you take.
Two Major Types of COPD
COPD includes two major types of progressive lung disease: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking, currently or in the past, is the leading cause of COPD. Other causes include environmental factors such as prolonged contact with asbestos or harmful chemicals and genetic factors that increase sensitivities to various substances.
In general, persons who have chronic bronchitis may need to lose weight while those with emphysema may need to gain weight. Accordingly, a healthy diet for one type will likely differ from a healthy diet for the other. Both types, however, benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables and fewer servings of red meat and fried foods.
How Nutrition Affects Breathing
How nutrition affects breathing relates to metabolic function (the transformation of nutrients or sugars into energy and carbon dioxide). The metabolic process also produces oxygen molecules with an extra electron called “free radicals.” Too many free radicals, especially long-term, can cause chronic inflammation in various parts of the body; this is known as oxidative stress.
Further, chronic inflammation in the lungs from oxidative stress can damage lung tissue, especially the bronchial pathways (bronchioles) and lung sacs (alveoli). Damaged lung tissue leads to difficulty in breathing.
In addition to COPD, oxidative stress may also lead to cardiovascular disease, Crohn’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, various autoimmune disorders, and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. These other conditions often accompany COPD.
Oxidative stress is usually relieved by antioxidants that we ingest from various foods. If we don’t consume enough antioxidants, damaged lung tissue makes breathing more difficult. Conversely, by consuming foods that contain high antioxidants, persons with COPD may suffer fewer exacerbations.
Good and Bad Nutritional Paths
Researchers who study the effects of diet on COPD have encountered several hurdles. Since different types of foods are consumed together, controlled experiments on the effects of individual foods are nearly impossible, and observation or self-reporting of nutritional habits can be unreliable. Therefore, the most reliable research focuses on patterns of food consumption and how those patters correlate with improving the lives of COPD patients. (See Role of Diet in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Prevention and Treatment, NIH, 2019.)
For example, the “Western diet” that is typical for many Americans features frequent portions of cured and red meat and high quantities of carbohydrates (French fries, pasta), added sugars, sodium (salt), processed foods, low fiber, and foods containing saturated fats. This pattern also skimps on fresh fruits and vegetables. There is about a 40% increased risk of COPD with higher consumption of processed red meat.
By contrast, the “Mediterranean diet” usually includes higher quantities of fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, herbs, spices, fish, extra virgin olive oil, fiber, and whole grains. This diet includes only moderate quantities of poultry, eggs, and cheese. Red meat, refined grains, sugar-added foods and beverages, and processed meat (hot dogs, sausages) are usually avoided as well.
Most physicians, nutritionists, and clinical researchers agree that COPD-affected persons should follow a diet that more closely resembles the Mediterranean pattern. The main reason for this recommendation is that a Mediterranean-like diet is rich in antioxidants. However, if you are thinking of changing your diet, you should always discuss it with your doctor first.
Diet Guidelines and Tips
In addition to the above mentioned, consider the following suggestions:
- To make vegetables pop with flavor, try roasting them with a light drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and various herbs and spices of your choosing. Roasting chopped vegetables in a toaster oven or regular oven for about 30 minutes is easy, and you won’t crave salt as your seasoning of choice.
- If possible, purchase your fruits and vegetables from a local farmers’ market. The food tastes better because it’s fresher. Often, you can find organic or non-GMO foods that contain more nutrients. And you get to support your local economy.
- Try eating your major meal earlier in the day when you have more energy. You can also try eating 4 or 5 smaller meals per day to help you breathe more easily.
- If you feel too full or have trouble breathing while eating, try eating more slowly. Also, you might limit drinking fluids until after you have finished eating.
Personal circumstances can alter how you should adjust your diet while managing COPD. This is why you must consult your health care provider or registered dietician before making any significant changes.
For example, you may have food allergies or sensitivities that require a specific diet. You may also have another health condition or take medication that affects your diet.
Changing what you eat, especially eliminating or cutting back on favorite foods, can be challenging. As the term “comfort food” suggests, eating can provide a false sense of well-being.
Eating more of the foods designed to help manage your COPD, however, may reduce the number or intensity of exacerbations. When you can breathe more freely, your lifestyle improves. Eat well and live better!