What to Eat When You Have COPD

Dietary Recommendations for Better Management

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Nutritional recommendations can play a role in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) management. Diet can keep you at a healthy body weight; being overweight can worsen breathing, while being underweight a possible result of severe disease. And good nutrition may help prevent COPD complications such as infections.

Nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables are recommended, while highly processed foods or deep-fried and breaded items should be avoided.

Benefits

COPD is a lung disease that causes a number of symptoms, including dyspnea (shortness of breath) and fatigue due to airway inflammation and narrowing.

There are a variety of benefits when it comes to following nutritional recommendations in COPD. Weight control, keeping your immune system healthy, helping your lungs heal from damage, maintaining your energy, and avoiding inflammation are among the ways your diet can enhance your health when you have this disease.

These effects won't reverse the condition, but they can help keep it from getting worse.

Weight Control

Weight is complicated when it comes to COPD. Obesity is considered a COPD risk factor. And being overweight places a high demand on your heart and lungs, making you short of breath and worsening your COPD symptoms.

But malnutrition and being underweight can pose a major problem in COPD too. Chronic disease puts increased demands on your body, robbing your body of nutrients. And, a lack of nutrients makes it even harder for you to heal from the recurrent lung damage inherent with COPD.

This means that weight control is something you need to be serious about. Regularly weighing yourself can help you get back on track quickly if you veer away from your ideal weight range. Strategic diet choices, of course, can help you stay on track.

Strengthening Your Immune System

Any infection, especially a respiratory one, can make it difficult to breathe and can lead to a COPD exacerbation.

When you have COPD, a pulmonary infection has a more severe impact on your already impaired lungs. And COPD itself results in a diminished ability to avoid infections through protective mechanisms like coughing.

Getting adequate nutrients like protein, vitamin C, and vitamin D through diet can help your immune system fight off infections.

Healing From Damage

Recurrent lung damage is the core problem in COPD. When your body is injured, it needs to heal. Nutrients like vitamin E and vitamin K help your body repair itself.

Maintaining Energy

COPD leads to low energy. You need to consume carbohydrates to fuel yourself.

Iodine, an essential mineral, helps your body make thyroid hormone to regulate your energy metabolism. Your body also needs adequate vitamin B12 and iron to keep your oxygen-carrying red blood cells healthy.

Avoiding Inflammation

Inflammation plays a major role in COPD. Experts recommend a diet rich in antioxidants such as plant-based foods and omega-3 fatty acid-rich seafood to help combat excessive inflammation.

Research also suggests that artificial preservatives may induce an inflammatory response that promotes diseases such as COPD, so they should be avoided..

How It Works

A COPD diet plan is fairly flexible and can include many foods that you like to eat. General guidelines include:

  • Avoiding allergy and asthma triggers
  • Eliminating (or at least minimizing) processed foods
  • Including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, dairy, lean meats, and seafood

You can follow a vegetarian or vegan diet if you want to, but you will need to make sure that you get enough fat and protein by eating things like avocados and healthy oils.

Duration

A COPD diet is meant to be followed for a lifetime. This is a chronic, incurable disease, and following these diet guidelines consistently can help you manage symptoms along the way.

What to Eat

Complaint Foods Non-Compliant Foods
Water, tea, fruit-infused water Alcohol, carbonated drinks 
Fruits, vegetables, fiber Processed foods
Seafood, lean meat Foods with trans fats
Natural herbs and spices Excess salt
Natural sweeteners Sugar
  Foods that trigger your symptoms

There are plenty of options you can include in your diet when you have COPD. If you're having a hard time coming up a nutrition plan that is to your liking, a dietitian can help.

Fruit and Vegetables

Fresh or cooked fruits and vegetables are resources for essential vitamins and minerals. They also contain natural antioxidants that help promote healing and counteract inflammation. Consider the wide array of options, including potatoes, beets, spinach, carrots, broccoli, asparagus, bananas, peaches, blueberries, and grapes.

Energy-Rich Carbohydrates

You need a daily supply of energy, most of which comes from carbohydrate calories. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains can give you lasting energy. Simple carbohydrates like candy can give you a burst of energy, but then the excess calories are quickly stored as fat (leading to weight gain).

Consuming too much carbohydrate calories can lead to obesity and may increase your risk of diabetes. On the other hand, not consuming enough can leave you low in energy and underweight.

Make sure you get some professional guidance regarding your optimal calorie intake, which is calculated based on your age and height. Your COPD will also be considered, as it may mean that your body has a higher energy requirement.

According to the American Lung Association, your breathing muscles may need 10 times as many calories if you have COPD than breathing muscles of a person without the disease.

Proteins and Fats

Proteins are vital to your healing process, and they also help your body make immune cells. Foods like seafood, beef, poultry, pork, dairy, eggs, and beans contain protein.

Fats help you digest your food and make vitamins. Foods like meat, dairy, eggs, nuts, and oils contain fat.

Fiber

It's important to include enough fiber in your diet. While you might already know that fiber keeps your bowel movements regular and helps protect against colon cancer, a diet high in fiber is also associated with better lung function and reduced respiratory symptoms in people with COPD.

High-fiber foods include vegetables, legumes (beans and lentils), bran, whole grains, rice, cereals, whole-wheat pasta, and fresh fruit. These foods are also anti-inflammatory.

Your fiber consumption should be between approximately 21 and 38 grams of fiber each day, depending on your age and gender.

Beverages

Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, you should drink six to eight eight-ounce glasses of water daily. This helps to keep your mucus thin, making it easier to cough up.

It's easy to forget to drink, especially if you haven't been in the habit of hydrating. You might consider filling a large water bottle with your daily fluid requirements every morning and sipping on it throughout the day.

If plain water isn't palatable to you, and try warm or chilled herbal or green tea.

Alcohol can make you tired, especially if you are already chronically low in energy. And caffeine can raise your blood pressure or cause heart palpitations, making you feel light-headed, dizzy, or shorter of breath than usual. As some people with COPD may feel worse after consuming alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, it may be best to avoid or limit these.

Recommended Timing

Small, frequent calorie-dense meals can help you meet your caloric needs more efficiently if you are having a hard time keeping weight on. Small meals can also help you feel less full or bloated, making it more comfortable to breathe deeply.

Cooking Tips

You might enjoy keeping track of calories, reading nutrition labels, and coming up with new recipes. But not everyone wants to focus so much on every dietary detail or spend time working on creating a meal plan.

If you prefer to follow specific instructions for a personalized menu, talk to your doctor about getting a consultation with a nutritionist or a dietitian. You can get recipes or guidelines from a professional and ask questions about how to modify dishes to your preferences and for your disease.

Cooking guidelines to keep in mind include:

  • Avoid deep-frying your food: This process creates trans fats, which can lead to additional cellular damage in your lungs beyond the damage that's already there due to COPD.
  • Use salt in moderation: This is especially important if you have high blood pressure or edema (swelling of the feet or legs). Edema is a late-stage complication of COPD.
  • Use fresh herbs to add natural flavor, which can reduce your reliance on salt.
  • Use natural sweeteners like honey, ginger, or cinnamon instead of sugar. Excess sugar can increase the risk of edema.

Modifications

One of the most important dietary guidelines to keep in mind when you have COPD is avoiding foods that may trigger an allergic reaction or an asthma attack.

Allergies and asthma attacks can cause severe, sudden shortness of breath. Anything that triggers a bout of breathing problems can be life-threatening for you when you already have COPD.

Common food triggers include dairy products, eggs, nuts, or soybeans.

You don't need to avoid an allergen (a substance that causes an allergic reaction) if it doesn't cause you to have symptoms, but try to be observant about patterns and trends that exacerbate your symptoms.

If you notice that certain foods affect your breathing, it's important to be vigilant about avoiding them.

Considerations

The basics of a COPD diet are healthy guidelines for everyone. Because of your COPD, however, there are some additional things you should keep in mind when working to follow your eating plan.

General Nutrition

Don't assume that you are vitamin deficient. If you and your doctor are concerned that you could be low in a nutrient like iron or vitamin D, for example, get tested first before you rush to take supplements.

If you find out that you are low in certain nutrients and can't consume enough, you can discuss supplements with your medical team. Vitamins or protein drinks may be the only way for you to get the nutrients your body needs if it's too difficult for you to consume an adequate diet.

Safety

Your tendency to cough when you have COPD could place you at risk of choking when you eat or drink. Be sure to give yourself ample time to consume your food and liquids carefully. Avoid talking while you are eating and drinking so you can reduce your risk of choking.

Shortness of breath can be a problem when eating too. Pace yourself and stick to foods that are not difficult for you to chew and swallow.

If you are on continuous oxygen therapy, make sure you use it while you eat. Since your body requires energy to eat and digest food, you will need to keep breathing in your supplemental oxygen to help you get through your meals.

A Word From Verywell

Your diet can have an impact on your COPD. Although a healthy diet cannot cure COPD, it can help you feel better and it can help prevent your disease from getting worse. A COPD diet is flexible and does not cause any adverse side effects or interfere with any of your medications.

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