Foods That May Worsen COPD Symptoms

In working to manage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may want to look closely at your diet. There's evidence that some foods may cause fluid retention or excess gas and bloating, both of which can make it harder to breathe. Your COPD symptoms may get worse even if the problematic foods are generally considered part of a healthy eating plan.

Consider starting a symptom diary in which you log not only how you're feeling but what you're doing throughout the day—including exactly what you eat—to see if you notice any patterns. Before you cut out an entire food group over concern that it's exacerbating your COPD, however, speak to your doctor, a nutritionist, or a registered dietitian.

Put the Brakes on Bloating

cruciferous vegetables in a bowl

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For people with COPD, bloating caused by gas can create increased pressure on the diaphragm that may worsen dyspnea—the feeling of being short of breath.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of highly nutritious foods that cause gas and bloating. In particular, cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and bok choy. These foods are rich sources of vitamins such as C and A.

The good news is that you can get these nutrients from other foods, including citrus fruits, carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes.

Sugary, bubbly sodas, beer, and fried foods are also notorious for causing gas and bloating. Fried foods are particularly worth steering clear of because they are also high in fat and therefore, digest more slowly, which can contribute to bloating.

Stay Away From Salt

Different types of salt crystals, sea salt, himalaya coarse salt, fleur de sel, chipotle flingsalt, hickory smoked salt, stone salt and garlic salt

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Salt leads to the retention of fluid, which may increase swelling and the buildup of fluids in the lungs. For patients with COPD, especially those who have a complication of COPD called pulmonary hypertension, this fluid buildup can make breathing more difficult.

The COPD Foundation recommends choosing food products that are labeled as "low sodium" or that have less than 140 mg (milligrams) of sodium per serving.

Super-Salty Foods

You may be surprised by the high-salt content found in these popular foods:

  • Bread
  • Pizza
  • Cold cuts and cured meats
  • Soups
  • Burritos and tacos

Preparing your own meals with fresh ingredients like fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and lean meats is a sure way to avoid unnecessary salt. When cooking, try salt-free seasonings and spices.

Cut the Cured Meats

Bacon in a frying pan

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Try to limit or eliminate foods high in nitrates from your diet, such as hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts, and other processed luncheon meats.

There's research to suggest that eating foods containing large amounts of nitrates and nitrites—the substances used to preserve cured meats—has harmful effects on lung function and increases the risk of a person developing COPD.

Moreover, one study found that a high consumption of cured meat over a one- to three-year period increased the risk of COPD readmission (when COPD symptoms become severe enough to require hospitalization).

While it's unclear exactly how cured meat intake may aggravate COPD symptoms or affect disease development/progression, experts speculate that nitrates/nitrites may damage lung tissue.

The high salt content of cured meats and subsequent fluid retention could also explain some of the findings.

Moderate Dairy

Bottle and glass of milk
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The high-fat content of dairy products (milk, cheese, ice cream, and yogurt) paired with foods typical of the Western diet (e.g., refined grains, red meat, and sweets) has been linked to a higher risk of COPD, worse respiratory symptoms, and lower lung function.

Some people with COPD also feel that consuming cow's milk increases mucus (phlegm) production. While this is disputed by experts, milk may create the sensation of extra or thicker mucus, which can be especially uncomfortable if you have COPD.

And for people with COPD who are sensitive to lactose, dairy products may cause bloating, which can make breathing harder.

All of that said, dairy products also contain essential nutrients for your lung health, such as calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, magnesium, and selenium.

These products also tend to be high in calories, which can be beneficial for some people with COPD who struggle to consume enough daily calories due to a loss of appetite (as a result of their disease).

With this in mind, incorporating them moderately into your diet (if possible) is likely your best bet. Consider speaking with your doctor about whether a high-fat or low-fat dairy diet is best for you.

Watch Your Overall Diet

Salmon Grilled on Cedar Planks

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Besides specific foods, a person's overall diet may negatively affect their COPD symptoms.

For example, one study found that a diet rich in deep-fried foods, red meat, and starches (rice and noodles) increased cough with phlegm production in people with COPD.

On the flip side, eating a Mediterranean-like diet—one that is rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and healthy fats—has been found to preserve lung function, reduce COPD symptoms, and prevent the development or worsening of COPD.

A Word From Verywell

The link between food and COPD is not entirely clear cut. While it's prudent to restrict certain foods, particularly if you've noticed that symptoms arise after consuming them, taking a moderation approach to other foods (dairy, for example), probably makes the most sense. Hopefully, with further research, experts will better understand diet influences COPD. 

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