Avoiding Shortness of Breath When Eating

One of the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is dyspnea, difficulty breathing that often interferes with many activities, including eating. Mealtimes can become frustrating. You may find you feel energy-depleted and malnourished because of this dyspnea, not to mention the sheer physical work it takes to finish eating your food.

A girl eating with her eyes closed
Pascal Broze / ONOKY / Getty Images

If you are finding it difficult to complete your meals because of shortness of breath when eating, try these seven tips. And if this continues to worsen, be sure to mention it to your healthcare provider.

Eat for Energy

Because some people with COPD are thin or even malnourished, it's best to choose foods that are high in calories to keep your energy levels soaring, which will positively impact your breathing. Try filling your plate with plant-based fats like coconut, olives, avocado, and nuts and seeds.

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.

Choose Easy-to-Chew Foods

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 your meal.

Eating foods that are easy to chew will help you conserve energy so you retain 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 exceptionally fatigued, consider a liquid meal, like a whole-food, protein-rich smoothie, or a liquid meal replacement or nutritional supplement, such as Ensure or Boost.

Opt for Smaller, More Frequent Meals

Eating more frequently means you'll require less food at each sitting, resulting in less labored breathing while you eat. Shifting to smaller meals can also reduce the pressure in your stomach after eating, making it easier to breathe while also reducing the risk of heartburn.

Clear Your Airways Before Dining

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. This can help you breathe more easily and feel better overall.

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

Go Slow

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, making 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 take your time.

Eat While Sitting Upright

Lying down or slumping while eating can place added 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

Pursed-lip breathing is a breathing technique that is very helpful to use when you become short of breath. It can also help 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 may 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:

  1. Take a normal breath through your nose with your mouth closed for two seconds.
  2. Pucker your lips like you are about to give someone a kiss or blow out a candle.
  3. Very slowly breathe out through your mouth for four seconds.

Save Beverages Until You're Done

When you drink liquids during your meals, you may fill up quickly and 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 food go down easier, do so.

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

A Word From Verywell

Eating should be 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, speak with your healthcare provider in addition to trying these strategies. You may need to be tested for supplemental oxygen use and you may benefit from seeing a dietitian or nutritionist.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Emphysema Foundation. The importance of good nutrition for chronic lung condition patients.

  2. Osadnik C, McDonald C, Jones A, et al. Airway clearance techniques for chronic obstructive pulmonary diseaseCochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012. (3):CD008328. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD008328.pub2

  3. COPD Foundation. Breathing exercises and techniques for COPD.

By Deborah Leader, RN
 Deborah Leader RN, PHN, is a registered nurse and medical writer who focuses on COPD.