What to Eat When You Have COPD

Close-up of hand reaching for fresh vegetables
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In This Article

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease of the lungs in which the airways become inflamed and narrowed. Dietary recommendations specific to those diagnosed with COPD can help with symptoms unique to the disease.

Benefits

Following a diet tailored to the needs of COPD has a number of benefits, including helping you maintain a healthy body weight and prevent complications of the condition.

If you are overweight, your heart and lungs have to work harder to breathe. Recent evidence suggests that, while obesity can be a risk factor for developing COPD, it may help prevent overall mortality from COPD in its advanced, severe stage. In contrast, if you are underweight, you may feel weak and tired and be more susceptible to infection. Chest infections can make it more difficult to breathe and lead to COPD exacerbation.

In general, people with COPD struggle more with being underweight than being overweight. It's important to find a balance, since being overweight may give your lungs more work to do, but being underweight can seriously threaten your body's ability to fight infections.

In addition, following recommended practices can help prevent what can be one of the most frightening aspects of COPD: dyspnea, the sensation of shortness of breath. When dyspnea starts to interfere with completing a meal, it can lead to weight loss and malnutrition, a common complication of COPD. Prolonged malnutrition is associated with a decrease in survival among COPD patients. Following a healthy COPD diet, therefore, plays an important role in the treatment of your disease.

Can a Healthy Diet Cure Me?

Although a healthy diet cannot cure COPD, it can help you feel better and give you more energy for all of your daily activities, including breathing. A diet high in fiber, fresh fruits, and vegetables has been shown to reduce the risk of developing COPD and is also likely to help prevent lung function decline as well as nutritional deficiencies that can speed progression of the disease. Eating right can also help you fight chest infections, which are common among patients with COPD.

How It Works: Dietary Guidelines for COPD

Here are some basic nutritional guidelines that will support your body if you have been diagnosed with COPD or another chronic lung disease.

Drink Plenty of Fluids

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

Herbal and green teas—consider those that include mints (peppermint, spearmint), eucalyptus, chamomile, turmeric, slippery elm—are a great choice for helping to keep airways clear. However, watch out for teas that also contain licorice, such as Throat Coat: drink these only in moderation, never daily. Licorice contains an ingredient called glycyrrhizic acid that can lead to dangerously low potassium levels, particularly for those with high blood pressure or heart, liver, or kidney conditions.

Drinking water during meals may be more hydrating than consuming it continuously throughout the day, and can also help keep the mouth moist as you chew. However, it can also lead to coughing or choking, so consume water or other liquids carefully and in moderation during meals. If you are having difficulty with your breathing during eating, try the pursed-lip technique for better breathing.

A Tip for Getting Enough Fluids

Some people find it easier to fill a container full of their daily fluid requirement in the morning and spread it out during the day. If you try this method, it is best to slow down your intake of fluids toward evening so you are not up all night urinating.

Include Fiber, Fruits, and Vegetables

In addition to following general dietary guidelines for good health, you'll want to focus especially on including enough fiber in your diet. A diet high in fiber is associated with better lung function and reduced respiratory symptoms in people with COPD. High-fiber foods such as vegetables, legumes (such as beans and lentils), bran, whole grains, rice, cereals, whole-wheat pasta, and fresh fruit aid in digestion by helping your food move more easily through your digestive tract. They're also anti-inflammatory, which can be particularly helpful when you have COPD.

Your fiber consumption should be between 21 and 38 grams of fiber each day, depending on your age and gender. Experiment to find the right mix of ingredients to reach this goal: many people who rapidly increase fiber in their diets experience painful gas. If you haven't been consuming the ideal amount of fiber (which is the norm among the population as a whole), try increasing your fiber by only a few grams a day until you reach this goal.

We are more likely to try something if it's fun. Try adding in COPD superfoods and watch to see if they make a difference in your life with COPD, as they have for others.

Dietary Dos and Don'ts with COPD
Do Don't
Drink plenty of fluids, such as tea and fruit-infused water Consume junk foods, sugar, or salt
Load up on fruits, vegetables, and fiber Avoid overeating
Eat small, frequent meals Avoid alcohol and carbonated drinks

Supplements

A diet high in antioxidants is helpful for reducing oxidative stress, which has been linked to inflammation of the airways in COPD. Supplements may also help. For example, Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a more rapid decline in lung function in people with COPD. Ask your doctor to test your vitamin D levels regularly, and be sure you’re getting at least 800-1,000 IU a day of this vitamin in food, as a supplement, or both.

Recommended Timing

If you are underweight, eating smaller, more frequent meals that are higher in calories can help you meet your caloric needs more efficiently. This can also help you feel less full or bloated, making it easier to breathe. Avoid low-fat or low-calorie food products. Supplement your meals with high-calorie snacks like pudding or crackers with peanut butter.

Some people with COPD have a higher energy requirement than others. In fact, according to the American Lung Association, in COPD, the muscles used to breathe may need 10 times as many calories as those in a healthy person. To find out how many calories you need to maintain, lose, or gain weight, talk to your healthcare provider or dietitian. Depending on the severity of your shortness of breath, the length of time you've been diagnosed and your body mass index, you may have different caloric needs than you once did.

Wear Your Oxygen Cannula While Eating

If your doctor has prescribed continuous oxygen therapy for you, make sure you wear your cannula when you eat. Since your body requires extra energy to eat and digest food, you will need the additional oxygen.

Dietary Restrictions

Avoid Overeating and Foods That Cause Gas

When you overeat, your stomach can feel bloated, making breathing more difficult. Carbonated beverages or gas-producing foods such as beans, cauliflower, cabbage, and legumes can also cause bloating. Balance nutritional considerations for such highly healthy foods with reducing bloating to allow for easier breathing.

Decrease Your Sodium Intake and Avoid Cured Meats

Eating too much salt causes your body to retain fluid, and too much fluid can make breathing more difficult. To reduce sodium intake, don't add salt when you cook, make sure you read all food labels, and don't consume cured meats. A diet high in cured meats may increase the risk of developing and being hospitalized for COPD. If the sodium content in food is greater than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving, don't eat it.

If you are thinking of using salt substitutes, make sure you check with your doctor first, as some ingredients in salt substitutes may be just as harmful as salt. An example is substituting potassium for sodium. Potassium can be more of a challenge to the body for someone who has kidney problems than sodium.

Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine

Alcohol and caffeine (even the caffeine in teas) can be dehydrating. Alcohol can also slow breathing and cause heartburn or even sleep apnea. Drink decaffeinated green tea to get its health benefits while avoiding caffeine, and consume alcohol only in moderation if at all.

Monitor Your Body Weight

Weighing yourself at least once a week will help you keep your weight under control. If you are taking diuretics or steroids, however, your doctor may recommend daily weigh-ins. If you have a weight gain or loss of two pounds in one day or five pounds in one week, you should contact your doctor.

A Word From Verywell

Food gives your body the fuel that it needs for energy, and your body requires energy for everything that you do, including breathing and eating. Ultimately, a healthy diet can have many benefits for your continued health, including for your COPD.

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