Foods that May Worsen Respiratory Symptoms

foods good for lungs, foods for respiratory healthIncreased shortness of breath – wheezing – cough. Yikes! It’s known that there are foods good for lungs, but are there really foods that can cause your respiratory symptoms to worsen? Scientists say that, at least for some people, there are.

Limit Meaty, Starchy Salty Foods

Contrary to popular belief, dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, don’t increase mucus production1 and worsen cough; meaty, starchy, salty foods do.2 A study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine reports that people who consume a diet composed of mostly meat, refined starches and sodium have a 1.43 higher risk of developing chronic respiratory symptoms and COPD.2 Which foods should you consider cutting out of your daily diet? Start with the following:

  • Sweets and desserts such as pies, cake, donuts and sweet rolls.
  • Red and processed meats such as hamburger, beef ribs, cold cuts and other luncheon meats.
  • French fries and other fried foods such as onion rings, fried chicken, fried zucchini and mozzarella sticks.
  • Refined grains such as white rice, cream of wheat, corn and flour tortillas, ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, white bread, sandwich rolls or buns.

Which foods should you eat instead? Try choosing:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Legumes and nuts
  • Fish and poultry
  • Whole grains
  • Low fat or fat-free dairy products

Bid Farewell to Foods that Cause Gas and Bloating 

Certain foods – and beverages as well – are notorious for producing gas and bloating which often leads to uncomfortable – not to mention embarrassing – digestive symptoms. But, your gut isn’t the only system that suffers from the consumption of gassy foods – your neighboring respiratory system can also be affected. As the girth of the abdomen increases from the effects of gas and bloating, so does pressure on the diaphragm, which in turn makes it difficult for some folks to breathe. People with lung disease have enough problems in the breathing department; they certainly don’t need to complicate matters by choosing foods and libations that produce gas.

For a list of foods to avoid, read Identifying Foods that Cause Bloating.

Say No to Nitrates

Cured meats such as hot dogs, ham, corned beef, luncheon meats and bacon are preserved with nitrates and nitrites, substances that do a great job at preventing spoilage, but may have a negative impact on our health. A study published in the European Respiratory Journal reveals that a high dietary intake of cured meats is associated with an increased risk of worsening COPD symptoms and subsequent hospitalization for COPD exacerbation.3 Instead of meats cured with nitrates, look for meats cured in sugar or other curing agents.

Be Aware of Food Allergens

Approximately 3% to 4% of all adults experience food allergies resulting from an overreaction of the body’s immune system to certain foods.4 The trouble with food allergies is that they can worsen respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing and cough. Foods that are infamous for causing food allergies include:

  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Shellfish
  • Peanuts
  • Soybeans
  • Wheat and foods containing glutens
  • Hazel nuts, walnuts, pecans and other tree nuts

If you’re aware of an existing food allergy, then you already know which foods to avoid. However, if your respiratory symptoms increase only after eating certain foods and you’ve never been told you have a food allergy, maybe you’ve developed one; talk to your physician about allergy skin testing.


Author: Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


1 Pinnock CB, et. al. Relationship between milk intake and mucus production in adult volunteers challenged with rhinovirus-2. Am Rev Respir Dis. 1990 Feb;141(2):352-6.
2 Butler, LM., et al. Prospective study of dietary patterns and persistent cough with phlegm among Chinese Singaporeans. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Published ahead of print on November 4, 2005 as doi:10.1164/rccm.200506-901OC.
3 de Batlle, J., et. al. Cured meat consumption increases risk of readmission in COPD patients. Eur Respir J. 2012 Sep;40(3):555-560. Epub 2012 Mar 9.
4 National Jewish Health. Food Allergies. Last reviewed 11/6/09.

2 thoughts on “Foods that May Worsen Respiratory Symptoms”

  1. Jane Bell says:

    thank you for your article look forward to many more
    as it is most helpful

    1. Thank you so much, Jane, for the lovely compliment. It means a lot to me when people get something out of the articles that I write. I appreciate you reading my articles and sharing your comment. Please check back often as we are always adding more. Thanks again.


      Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN

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