Together, these conditions damage the lungs and airways, making it more difficult to breathe. Common symptoms include shortness of breath, chronic cough with mucus, wheezing, and fatigue.
All of the body’s processes, including breathing, require energy. The body gets this energy from food, water, and oxygen. People with COPD are advised to follow a healthful diet because:
- When a person has COPD, breathing takes more effort and energy. As a result, people with COPD need to get more energy and nutrients from the food they eat.
- COPD impairs the lungs’ ability to get oxygen, so proper nutrients from food become even more important for the lungs.
- A poor diet can cause unplanned weight loss in people with COPD. They may have difficulty eating or burn too many calories through the additional effort they use to breathe. This may lead to weaker muscles, less activity, and more shortness of breath.
Fueling the body with proper nutrition can help a person with COPD feel better, be more active, and help maintain the best possible lung function.
Diet do’s and don’ts
In general, a healthful diet as outlined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is helpful for those with COPD as it provides essential nutrients.
The diet should focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and lean protein, such as fish and poultry.
People should limit processed and fried foods as much as possible as they don’t provide as much nutrition as fruits, vegetables, and grains.
These additional dietary steps can help people with COPD feel their best:
- Loading up on fruits and vegetables: The National Emphysema Foundation say plant foods help fight inflammation and infection. They are also easy to digest and provide the body with energy.
- Eating plenty of protein: Protein plays a key role in the health of muscles, bones, blood, and immunity. Because lung infections are more common in people with COPD, protein is an important component of the diet. Good sources of protein include fish, eggs, poultry, dairy, soy, nuts, legumes, and moderate amounts of red meat.
- Minimizing sodium: Too much sodium can increase blood pressure and make shortness of breath worse in people with COPD. It can also cause the body to retain more fluids, which can be a common problem in people with COPD.
- Avoiding simple carbohydrates: These are in foods such as sugary snacks, white bread, pasta, and many processed foods, which usually offer little to no fiber and nutrients. These types of food are broken down quickly in the body, which results in the production of more carbon dioxide. This is dangerous for a person with COPD, because they may not be able to take in enough oxygen to get rid of the excess carbon dioxide.
- Choosing whole grains and complex carbohydrates: People with COPD should try to eat whole grain pasta and bread, beans, peas, fruits, and vegetables, which will minimize the amount of carbon dioxide that is produced by food.
- Avoiding foods that cause gas: Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts and foods with sulfites such as deli meats may need to be avoided if they cause indigestion or bloating.
- Drinking plenty of water: Staying hydrated can help thin and loosen mucus in the lungs and airways. Water, caffeine-free tea, milks, and fruit-infused water are generally good choices. Carbonated soda can cause bloating and offers little to no nutritional value and should therefore be avoided.
If appetite is low, fluids may need to be avoided 30 minutes before meals to allow the stomach to feel more empty. Some people with COPD may need to restrict fluids if they are retaining water. A doctor or dietitian can advise the amount of fluid needed in these cases.
Size and frequency of meals
Eating three large meals a day can make COPD symptoms feel worse. A large meal takes more energy and oxygen to digest. This means the body has less oxygen for other functions. Large meals may also cause bloating and indigestion, which can make shortness of breath feel worse.
Six small meals a day can help keep energy levels stable, and will generally be easier to digest. It can also feel less overwhelming and stressful to sit down and eat smaller portions when breathing can be difficult.
Making eating easier
Some people with COPD may find that eating can be difficult, especially as the disease progresses. Breathing while chewing food and swallowing can be challenging when a person is short of breath. This can lead to more weight loss, as the person may not feel like putting in the effort to eat, or may lose their appetite.
To help reduce some of the effort in chewing and eating, people with COPD may wish to try soft or pureed foods, such as:
- Cooked vegetables and fruits instead of raw
- Ground meats in place of steaks and whole chicken breasts
- Soups made with well-cooked or puréed meats and vegetables
- Well-cooked whole grain pasta and rice
- Smoothies, which can be made with protein powder, yogurt, fruit, and vegetables
Because worry and anxiety can make shortness of breath feel worse, people with COPD should try to relax for a few minutes before and after meals. Mealtimes should not involve discussions about stressful topics. If a person feels short of breath before eating, they may wish to try breathing exercises such as pursed-lip breathing.
Sitting upright in a supportive and comfortable chair while eating can help maximize the airflow to the lungs. Slouching or reclining are not advised. In addition, a person should avoid lying down 30 minutes after eating to assist with digestion and breathing.
Healthy weight and COPD
COPD can cause weight loss, even when a person doesn’t need to lose weight. When a person doesn’t have enough body fat, their body may start to burn muscle for energy. This can mean the person has less energy for activity and weaker muscles to support breathing.
It’s important for people with COPD to try to maintain a healthy weight. If a person is underweight, they may wish to talk with a dietitian or their doctor about healthful ways to avoid further weight loss.
Some food options that may help with weight gain include:
- Full-fat dairy products such as a glass of whole milk (if dairy makes mucus production worse, it may need to be avoided)
- Olive oil, which can be added to salads and cooked vegetables and meats
- Nuts and nut butters, which are high in healthful fats and protein
- Protein shakes or supplements if advised by a doctor
- Avocados, which can be used in cooking, salads, and smoothies
Supplements to aid with digestion
If a person with COPD finds that many foods cause indigestion or gas, certain supplements may help:
- Digestive enzyme pills can benefit digestion when used as directed. These enzymes help the body break down food more efficiently.
- Probiotics add healthy bacteria to the gut. These friendly bacteria can not only improve constipation and diarrhea in some cases, but may benefit the immune system as well.
COPD patients should ask their doctor before taking any supplement. Certain supplements may interact with medications, or may be dangerous for people with health problems.
Healthful foods help the body
The food a person consumes can affect all aspects of their health, including their breathing. Many foods can make up a healthful diet, but no one food will improve COPD symptoms. However, focusing on healthful foods and following a dietitian’s advice can help people with COPD feel better and lead more active lives.
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