Foods That May Worsen COPD Symptoms

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD, you may have noticed that your symptoms get worse after you eat certain foods—even foods that are generally considered part of a healthy diet. It's probably not your imagination: There's evidence that some foods affect the mucus produced by the lungs, for example, and that others cause bloating, which can make it harder to breathe.

Pay close attention to how your body reacts to the foods you eat. If you can identify a pattern, you may be able to single out certain ones that make your COPD worse. This way you can either limit them or stop eating them altogether.

Here are some common ones to keep an eye on.


Be Daring About Dairy

Bottle and glass of milk
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You may have heard that eating lots of dairy increases mucus production. This isn't quite true:

Foods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt do not trigger the body to produce excess mucus, according to the COPD Foundation, but they can cause existing mucus to become thicker.

It's better to take steps to keep mucus thin rather than miss out on the calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients that dairy products provide. Drinking lots of water and using an airway device are simple ways to do this. Some experts say club soda also can thin out mucus, but keep in mind that carbonated beverages tend to increase gas and bloating so this may not be an option that works for you.


Put the Brakes on Bloating

cruciferous vegetables
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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.

Sugary, bubbly sodas and greasy fried foods are notorious for causing gas and bloating. They're worth steering clear of for other reasons as well: Most are high in saturated fat and calories. 

However, there are a lot of highly nutritious foods that also are known to 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, but you can get these nutrients from other foods, including citrus fruits, carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes. 


Nix Nitrates

Bacon in a frying pan
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There's research to suggest that eating foods containing large amounts of nitrates—the substances used to preserve cured meats—can aggravate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease enough to lead to COPD exacerbation. This is a condition in which symptoms can become severe enough to require hospitalization. It's also thought that eating nitrates can cause the disease to progress.

What's more, nitrates may increase the risk of cancer; people with COPD are already at an increased risk of lung cancer. Researchers say that it may take very little nitrate-containing food to affect the severity of COPD.

More than one slice of ham per day could do damage, so besides ham, limit or completely eliminate foods high in nitrates, such as hot dogs, bacon, and cold cuts and other process luncheon meats. 


Avoid Allergens

Whsking Eggs and Milk
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Food allergies are associated with the worsening of respiratory symptoms such as a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and bronchospasm. If you've been diagnosed with food allergies, then you know what you can—and cannot—eat. But if your COPD symptoms tend to get worse after you eat and you can't attribute this any other cause, it could be you have a food allergy. The most common food allergens are:

  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Wheat and cereals that contain gluten (for people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity)
  • Milk 
  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts such as hazelnuts, walnuts, and pecans
  • Soybeans 
  • Shellfish and certain other seafood: crab, shrimp, lobster, snails, and oysters 

Dietary Best Bets When You Have COPD

Salmon Grilled on Cedar Planks

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Eating certain foods can certainly make COPD symptoms worse, but at the same time, there are dietary habits that are associated with a decreased risk of developing COPD in the first place.

For example, according to a 2007 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a high intake of whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, nuts, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and a low intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened drinks are associated with a decreased risk of COPD. Another study found that eating more fish may be linked with a lower risk of developing the disease.

Given that these are smart eating habits overall, the possibility that adopting them could protect you from a condition as debilitating as COPD should make them even more appetizing.

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