What You Eat Can Impact Your COPD

by Jane Martin Health Professional

You are what you eat has been a phrase embraced by dieticians and nutritionists. Until recently, that phrase was mostly used when discussing weight loss, but in recent years clinicians have realized that food choices and portion sizes have a strong link to overall health, risk of disease, and disease progression. Food is the fuel your body needs to perform daily functions optimally. Food is necessary for survival. Dietary choices can also support or undermine lung health and that means your ability to breathe. If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), daily habits and behaviors may either improve your symptoms and delay disease progression, or hasten lung deterioration. If you want to optimize lung health, it may be time to focus on your diet.

Carrying excess weight means that your heart and your lungs have to work harder. Obesity has significant (negative) effects on respiratory function. People with obesity have higher respiratory rates and lower tidal volumes. Lung volume is decreased, especially expiratory reserve volume. Carrying excess weight in the upper body (abdominal area) as opposed to it being distributed evenly throughout the body may pose unique and additional lung challenges because of the added pressure on diaphragm movement. Obesity can also cause stiffening of the respiratory system, with adipose tissue having a direct effect on respiratory function. The net effect of these changes is that the individual has to increase respiratory effort (to compensate). Weight loss will usually lead to reversal of these lung challenges and improvement of respiratory wellbeing.

Being underweight is not necessarily beneficial in COPD. Since inspiratory effort requires more energy, because it is compromised, then you need adequate caloric intake to support your breathing efforts. You also need strong muscles (diaphragmatic) for breathing, so meeting protein goals and maintaining muscle mass is very important.

The dietary challenge in COPD is to address being overweight or having obesity by losing weight, to choose quality foods in the right quantities so you maintain an adequate weight if you are too thin or underweight, and to choose foods that specifically support lung health.

What are the foods that support healthy lung function?

Whole, unprocessed foods should make up the bulk of your diet. Choosing the superstars from each food group will ensure that you consume a balanced healthy diet. That means eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, low fat unsweetened dairy products like milk and yogurt, quality proteins like fish, skinless chicken, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, and eggs, whole grains (unprocessed), and healthy fats like avocadoes and olive oil. Consider emphasizing fruits like apples and tomatoes to maintain lung health and to limit lung damage, especially if you are an ex-smoker. If weight loss is recommended, you might consider a consult with a dietician who can determine your daily caloric needs so that you maintain muscle mass, while managing to aim for a goal of weekly weight loss.

Are there specific foods I should avoid if I have COPD?

Foods that cause bloat can place pressure on your diaphragm, making it harder to breathe. Some foods that typically cause bloat include:

  • Carbonated drinks

  • Fried, greasy, and heavily spiced foods

  • Highly processed foods

  • Foods that contain sorbitol

  • Beans (use Beano to avoid bloating)

  • Certain vegetables including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, corn, cauliflower, leeks, peppers, scallions, shallots

  • Soy foods can be problematic and cause gas for some individuals

  • Gluten can be a problem if you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease

How can I boost my energy levels?

COPD can be progressively debilitating. Committing to a well-balanced breakfast daily that includes a serving of lean protein, antioxidant-rich fruit, some dairy, and healthy fat will help to rev up your metabolism and your energy levels. Make sure to eat three meals daily and supplement with one or two small snacks (fruit and nuts, vegetables and hummus) to keep blood sugar and energy levels stable. Make sure you hydrate with water throughout the day. This will also help to limit thick secretions. Coffee should be limited since the caffeine can make you jittery, especially if you take certain (stimulant) medications.

Are there foods that can help to optimize my pulmonary rehabilitation or my daily exercise efforts?

Carbohydrates and fats are your fuel foods. Timing of these foods depends on how much and how often you exercise or how challenging your pulmonary rehabilitation program is. You may want to split your breakfast into two meals, and have half before you exercise and then the other half when you are finished with the workout. Hydrate with water before, during, and after your workout. There's no need to drink energy drinks or caloric drinks unless you engage in very prolonged (more than an hour) exercise. Even then, you can rehydrate with water and just have a small snack.

If you are trying to lose weight, then exercise efforts can provide the additional calorie deficit you need daily in order to nudge weight loss. Don't overeat because you are exercising — that defeats the goal. As you lose weight, you will likely need to reduce your daily calorie intake since you are supporting a smaller body mass. Having regular meetings with a dietician will help you to address your dietary needs as you lose weight or more regularly engage with fitness activities.

Updated by: Amy Hendel

Jane Martin
Meet Our Writer
Jane Martin

Jane Martin is an accomplished respiratory therapist, author and founder and director of Breathing Better, Living Well.com. She wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for COPD.