Eat to Breathe Better with COPD-Part I

  • In this sharepost

    • How your body uses food
    • Maintaining the right weight for you
    • Foods to breathe better, foods to boost energy and foods to avoid


    It’s easy to see why you should pay attention to what you eat when you’re trying to lose weight, gain weight, or if you have issues with your digestive system. But, if you have COPD, does what you eat have any affect on your breathing? And if so, how?


    Let’s start by looking at how your body uses food. Food is the fuel you need in order to survive and to perform all activities – including breathing. Good nutrition also helps the body fight infections, the very infections that can settle in your lungs. The way your body uses food is part of a process called metabolism.

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                 Metabolism: Food and Oxygen = Energy + Carbon Dioxide


    In the process of metabolism, food and oxygen are changed into energy and carbon dioxide, providing your body with nutrients (carbohydrates, fat, and protein). This energy is needed to not only perform activities of daily living, but to simply keep our bodies alive. Carbon dioxide is a waste product that leaves your body when you breathe out.


    Body Weight

    It’s important to maintain a healthy body weight and if you have COPD, that number may surprise you. Your health care provider or registered dietitian can talk with you about a weight that’s best for you and how many calories you should consume per day, keeping in mind the unique nutritional needs of a person with COPD. A dietician may recommend you take a nutritional supplement in addition to healthy, high-calorie meals and snacks.


    Being overweight can cause your heart and lungs to work harder, making breathing more difficult. If you are overweight, exercise regularly and limit your total daily calories. Dropping just 5-10% of your weight should make it easier to breathe – and take stress off your knees and back!


    Being underweight is a serious problem for many people with COPD. Just breathing requires more energy – and calories. The COPD Foundation’s Reference Guide (BFRG) says that a person with COPD may require up to seven times more calories than someone with normal lungs! So, if you have COPD it’s important to take in enough calories to prevent weakening or wasting of muscles. The simple truth is – your body burns fat, and when you run out of fat, you begin to burn muscle.  You don’t want that to happen, especially to the main muscle of breathing – your diaphragm. 


    Here are a few suggestions for high-calorie snacks:

    • Pudding made with whole milk
    • Soft or semi-soft cheeses
    • Granola bars
    • Custard
    • Tortilla chips topped with melted cheese
    • Crackers with peanut butter 
    • Bagels with cream cheese
    • Cereal with half and half 
    • Fruit or vegetables with dips
    • Yogurt with granola 
    • Dried fruits
    • Premium ice cream
    • Popcorn with margarine and parmesan cheese


    Let’s continue by looking at a few commonly asked questions about nutrition for people with COPD. You may note that some foods recommended as good to eat might also be found on a list of foods to avoid. Not everybody can tolerate every food, so take note of what you eat, how it affects you and adjust your food plan accordingly.


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    1.) What can I eat to breathe better?

    Eat a well-balanced diet of protein, carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and yes, even fats. Eat lean meats, whole grains rather than white bread and rice, and healthy fats such as olive oil. Eat the rainbow – foods with a variety of bright colors (Skittles don’t count!)  such as tomatoes, dark leafy greens, carrots, broccoli, squash, red peppers and citrus. Consider trying one new fruit or vegetable each week.


    2.) Are there foods I should avoid?

    Avoid foods that cause gas or bloating. A full stomach or bloated abdomen will push up on your diaphragm, making breathing harder. Not all foods listed here cause everyone to have gas or bloating.  Pay attention to what you eat and if something causes problems, avoid it and see if you begin to feel better. Foods that can cause gas and bloating include:

    • Carbonated beverages
    • Fried, greasy, or heavily spiced foods
    • Beans, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, corn, cucumbers, leeks, lentils, onions, peas, peppers, radishes, scallions, shallots, and soybeans


    Don't waste your energy eating foods that provide little or no nutritional value – empty calories – such as colas, high-sugar juices and teas, potato chips, candy bars and other snack foods. Keep in mind that excess carbon dioxide in the blood can be a problem with COPD, so avoid eating more than one or two pieces of candy per day because carbon dioxide is produced when you metabolize sugar.


    3.) Are there foods that will boost my energy?

    Getting energy from food has to do with both “what” you eat and “how” you eat. Make sure you eat breakfast. A body that hasn’t eaten in several hours needs to be fed. In addition to that, on some days, you may be too fatigued later in the day to eat well. If you’re at or under your ideal bodyweight, eat first, then sip your beverage. Eat the healthy, higher calorie foods first.

    Don’t count on coffee, other caffeinated beverages, or chocolate to pep you up – they can speed your heart up and make you jittery. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about this. Good old lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and water may not sound too exciting, but they’ll go a long way in keeping you moving – and breathing – well!


    There’s so much more to talk about when it comes to nutrition and COPD – we’ve just scratched the surface. But I hope it's been helpful. I’ll see you again soon for Part II of Eat to Breathe Better with COPD!



    Jane M. Martin is a licensed respiratory therapist, teacher, the founder and director of  and the author of Live Your Life With COPD: 52 Weeks of Health, Happiness and Hope and Breathe Better, Live in Wellness: Winning Your Battle Over Shortness of Breath.



Published On: May 21, 2012