How You Eat Can Affect Your COPD as Much as What You Eat

Health Professional

You know food affects lung health and you’ve learned what foods can support or negatively impact your life with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but you may have more questions about the effects of eating. Since COPD can be a challenging and debilitating disease with progressive symptoms, you may be struggling with other food complaints or associated issues. Let’s answer some commonly asked questions:

Why do I get tired when I eat and what can I do?

Eating is a physical activity, as is digestion. Most of us take these actions for granted, but if you have moderate to severe breathing challenges, then even basic activities can become increasingly difficult. Eating smaller meals may be more manageable. Taking pauses between bites and slowing down the pace of eating can also help. You may want to drink between bites to help moisten the food. Consider limiting conversation since that requires extra breath effort. Preparing and cooking food can also use up energy, so consider setting aside certain days for food preparation and cook in bulk. Enlist a family member to help you and freeze extras. The 4 Habits of Healthy Families offers simple tips to help you to plan, prepare, and portion food. Consider resting quietly for a few minutes before a meal, if you find that eating is increasingly taxing.

What can I do when I get full really fast after a meal, which makes breathing harder?

Individuals with COPD have hyper-inflated, larger-than-normal lungs. They can take up more internal space in your abdominal cavity, pushing up against the stomach sac. The opposite can also be true — a full stomach can push against the hyper-inflated lungs as well. This is another reason that having smaller, more frequent meals and light snacks may be a better approach. A yogurt parfait with some berries and chopped nuts, soup made with beans, or a small bowl of high protein pasta with tomato sauce and finely chopped vegetables are all easy-to-prepare light meals.

What else can help me to digest foods well?

Eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cooked dried peas, beans, lentils, and nuts will help you to meet daily fiber needs. Fiber aids in digestion and can also help to limit bloat. It will also support healthy bowel habits, so you avoid straining, which can be fatiguing if you are struggling with breathing efforts. Aim for 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily from a variety of sources and make sure to meet daily fluid goals (see below).

I’ve heard that I should avoid dairy products because they instigate mucous or make it thicker — is that true?

Some people feel that dairy products increase secretions — some famous singers swear off dairy for this reason. Similar to an elimination diet, try removing all dairy products from your diet for a few days and then introduce one at a time, a single portion at a time, to see if you tolerate individual dairy product, or if  dairy seems to have an impact on mucous and secretions for you personally.

How can I optimize my fluid intake?

Staying hydrated when you have COPD is important because it can help to limit secretions and also keep mucous more liquefied. Water is your best hydration choice. You can have one serving of 100-percent-pure juice daily — consider diluting it with water to make it less thick. A cup of coffee in the morning is fine as long as the caffeine does not bump up the stimulating effects of drugs you may be taking. Herbal teas are also fine — just make sure you steer clear of prepared sweetened versions with extra calories and unnecessary sugar. Flavor your water and tea with fruit infusers. Finally, keep track of your fluid intake by using a measured bottle. You want to try and consume about six to eight glasses of fluid daily. Soups and coffee count, and fruits and vegetables will boost your fluid levels.

Should I avoid or limit salt?

Individuals with COPD often have co-morbid conditions like hypertension or heart disease. Consuming too much sodium can lead to elevations in blood pressure and fluid retention, which will force your heart and kidneys to work harder. You want to avoid fluid retention, so check labels of all processed foods that you eat. Sodium is notoriously found in many, if not most processed foods, including bread, deli meats, soups, frozen foods, sauces and dressings, and condiments.

Current sodium guidelines recommend consuming a maximum of 2000 milligrams of sodium per day from all foods and liquids, and aiming for a lower upper limit of 1500 milligrams daily if you have heart disease.

Some easy ways to reduce sodium include:

  • Prepare and cook most of your foods and use fresh and dried herbs to season food.
  • Keep pepper and an “herb shaker” on the table instead of salt.

  • Read food labels like a detective and aim for no more than 400 mg sodium per main course (that will be a challenge).

  • Keep a food journal and track your intake of daily sodium.

  • Ask a dietician to recommend salt substitutes.

I’ve recently lost my appetite — what should I do?

As discussed in part one, food is fuel and COPD challenges require optimal levels of energy. Talk to your doctor to see if you are depressed. Having depression can make food less appealing and cut your hunger. Also make sure your COPD is not advancing and that your medications and exercise efforts are helping to keep symptoms and disease progression in check.

Are there any vitamins or supplements that can help?

Eating a balanced and varied diet filled with whole, unprocessed foods should provide the nutrients you need. Getting your vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients from whole foods is the best way to ensure maximal absorption. Learn about which vitamins are water soluble and water insoluble — there’s a benefit to eating certain foods like tomatoes for example, with a bit of healthy fat in the dish, to ensure maximal absorption of lycopene.

Updated by: Amy Hendel