Avoiding Shortness of Breath When Eating

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Breathing, for most people, requires very little effort or conscious thought. But, this is generally not the case if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that turns taking a simple breath into a difficult task.

The upside, though, is that with proper nutrition, you can gain more energy, which may, in turn, improve your breathing—a way for you to take a proactive role in your COPD health.

The only problem is that dyspnea (difficulty breathing) and other symptoms of COPD often interfere with eating, leaving you frustrated, energy-depleted, and malnourished.

If you are finding it difficult to complete a meal, try these seven tips to help you manage shortness of breath during mealtimes.

Clear Your Airways Before Eating

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Effective airway clearance is an important part of COPD management and can be especially beneficial before meals. When done on a regular basis, airway clearance techniques can help remove sputum (mucus) from the lungs. With sputum clearance, you can hopefully breathe more easily and feel better overall.

There are few different airway breathing techniques you can perform, including:

Eat and Chew Your Food Slowly

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Eating too fast not only interferes with your digestion and causes you to eat more than you should, but it can drain you of essential energy that will make breathing during meals that much more difficult. The next time you sit down to eat, try making your meal last at least 20 minutes. 

Take small bites and chew your food slowly. Make a conscious effort to breathe while you are eating. Put your utensils down between bites to ensure that you eat slower. Over time, you are sure to notice the difference, particularly in your breathing.

Eat Foods That Are Easy to Chew

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Foods that are hard to chew are also difficult to swallow. This puts you at greater risk for chokingaspiration pneumonia, and even death. Excess chewing can also zap your energy levels during meals, making it impossible for you to finish eating.

Eating foods that are easy to chew will help you conserve energy so you have more for breathing. Choosing tender, well-cooked meat, rather than tougher cuts and well-cooked fruits and vegetables, rather than raw, may help. On the days you are too drained of energy, you may consider a liquid meal, like the liquid nutritional supplement, Ensure or Boost.

Eat Smaller, More Frequent Meals

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Did you know that many professional bodybuilders eat six to eight small meals a day? They know something that many of us don't — that the key to maintaining a high metabolism is to eat smaller, more frequent meals. In addition, because some people with COPD are too thin or malnourished, it's best to choose foods that are high in calories to keep your energy levels soaring, which will positively impact your breathing.

Likewise, be sure to include lots of fruits and vegetables in your diet, as they will give you the nutrients you need to fight infection and minimize inflammation.

Save Beverages Until After You Eat

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When you drink liquids during your meals, you may have a tendency to fill up quickly, and this may cause you to feel full or bloated which can then lead to difficulty breathing. Try waiting until the end of your meal to drink your beverages. But, of course, if you need to sip water while you eat to make the food go down easier, please do so.

In addition, avoid carbonated drinks, especially sugary sodas, as sugar may cause inflammation and the carbonation may worsen your breathing. 

Eat While Sitting Upright

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Remember when your mother told you to sit up straight? Maybe she was on to something. Lying down or slumping while eating can cause pressure on your diaphragm. Proper posture, especially during meal times, will benefit your breathing by keeping excess pressure off your diaphragm, the major muscle of respiration. 

Use Pursed-Lip Breathing

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Pursed-lip breathing is a breathing technique that is very helpful to use when you become short of breath. It can also help to reduce the anxiety associated with dyspnea and allow you to finish a meal. Perform pursed-lip breathing when you feel short of breath during meals and you'll be surprised at what a difference it can make.

To perform pursed-lip breathing, first, relax your shoulders by dropping them down. Then follow these three steps:

  • Breathe in through your nose (a normal breath) with your mouth closed for two seconds.
  • Pucker your lips like you are about to give someone a kiss or blow out a candle.
  • Very slowly breathe out through your mouth for four seconds.

A Word From Verywell

Eating is a pleasurable activity, and nutrition is an essential component of living well with COPD. If you are finding it difficult to eat because of shortness of breath from your lung condition, please speak with your doctor in addition to following these steps. You may need to be tested for supplemental oxygen use and you may benefit from seeing a dietician or nutritionist.

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Article Sources

  • COPD Foundation. (2017). Breathing Techniques.
  • National Emphysema Foundation. (2017). The Importance of Good Nutrition for Chronic Lung Condition Patients. 
  • Osadnik, C., McDonald, C.; Jones, A.; et al. "Airway clearance techniques for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease." Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012; (3):CD008328.
  • University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. (2011). COPD: Nutrition, Oxygen, and Exercise.