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A Beginner’s Guide to COPD Nutrition

healthy diet for lung disease

There are many different things you can do to keep your body as healthy as possible and help improve your COPD symptoms. Being thoughtful and intentional about your nutrition is just one more way to nurture your body and give it the nutrients and fuel it needs so you can breathe easier. In fact, certain foods can literally help you breathe easier! Let’s take a look at how different foods can benefit your health when you have COPD, as well as what foods you should avoid. 

The Right Nutrition Is Preventative for COPD Patients

Believe it or not, what you eat can have a serious effect on your lungs’ health and overall lung function. This means that diet can have a significant impact on COPD patients and their symptoms. Generally, people understand that eating a healthy diet is good for your body and essential to maintaining your health. They may even have seen research that suggests that cutting down on red and processed meats, refined foods, and sugar-sweetened drinks and loading up on whole grains, polyunsaturated fats, and nuts may lower your risk of developing chronic lung disease. What current COPD patients might not realize is how much their diet can affect their COPD symptoms and the progression of their disease. As it turns out, the right diet can be preventative even after receiving a COPD diagnosis.

Certain Foods Can Impair Lung Function

While an overall healthy diet is important, there are actually very specific foods and beverages that are particularly bad for COPD patients. Specifically, research suggests that a high intake of cured or processed red meat has a negative effect on respiratory health and pulmonary function.[1] In fact, when looking at several studies of people’s eating habits across the globe, evidence suggests that there is a 40% increase in risk of COPD with higher consumption of processed red meat.[1] Processed red meat contains high levels of sodium, nitrates and saturated fatty acids, all of which have negative effects on the lungs and airways. Each of these have been associated with more severe cases of COPD, causing inflammation and impaired lung function.[1] 

Additionally, research shows that a higher intake of refined carbohydrates and sugar are associated with an increased decline in lung function. Foods with high glycemic indexes, like refined grains, sweets and sweetened beverages, may trigger inflammation as well, which is once again associated with impaired lung function and poor COPD outcomes.[1] People who frequently drank soft drinks, for example, were shown to have a higher prevalence of COPD, chronic bronchitis and asthma.[1] Eating a diet high in refined carbohydrates can also be problematic as metabolizing carbohydrates produces the most carbon dioxide for the amount of oxygen used.[2] That means that the more carbohydrates you eat, the harder your body has to work to eliminate the waste carbon dioxide produced. 

How Nutrition Can Help You Breathe Easier

Although smoking cessation is the single most important prevention method for COPD and other long-term health conditions, studies support the importance of healthy nutrition in the fight against COPD. Honorary medical adviser for the British Lung Foundation, Dr. Nick Hopskinson states, “By far the most important thing that someone diagnosed with COPD can do to slow the progression of the disease is to quit smoking. However, regular exercise and a healthy diet can also make a positive impact.”  But, of course, that requires knowing what kind of diet is best.

Clearly, a low intake of processed or cured red meat and refined carbohydrates is essential, but what kinds of foods seem to have a positive impact on lung function and respiratory health? While metabolizing carbohydrates produces the most carbon dioxide, metabolizing fat produces the least, so for some people with COPD, eating more good fats, along with fewer carbohydrates, can help them breathe easier.[2] In other words, your lungs have to work harder to eliminate carbon dioxide when you eat carbohydrates, but when you eat a higher fat, lower carb diet, your body doesn’t have to work as hard because your body does not produce as much carbon dioxide waste.[3] 

As such, many people with COPD have been exploring diets like the ketogenic diet and Mediterranean diet, which incorporate fewer carbohydrates and more quality fats and proteins. Some evidence does support that a ketogenic diet can reduce some inflammation, and because it is a higher fat, lower carb diet, it can potentially reduce the strain on your lungs when it comes to eliminating carbon dioxide.[3][4] Evidence also indicates that a Mediterranean diet can preserve lung function.[1] However, researchers are quick to point out that more research is required before these diets can be absolutely confirmed to benefit COPD. That said, if you have COPD, it is worthwhile to talk to your health care providers about adjusting your diet and incorporating more of the foods associated with these diets. No matter what, you should reduce your intake of processed and cured red meat and refined grains, sweets and sweetened beverages, but talk to your doctor before potentially incorporating a ketogenic or Mediterranean style diet. 

What You Should Eat to Benefit COPD

So what foods should you incorporate into your diet to benefit COPD? In a study published in British Medical Journal, researchers assessed the risk of developing COPD based on the Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 (AHEI-2010), a tool that measures the quality of one’s diet based on current, scientific knowledge. The AHEI-2010 diet score focused on 11 essential elements. A high score reflected a higher intake of vegetables, whole grains, polyunsaturated fats, nuts, certain omega-3 fatty acids, moderate alcohol consumption, and a low intake of red and processed meats, refined grains and sugary drinks. Study participants included over 120,000 women and men in the United States, and researchers found that participants with a higher AHEI-2010 diet score had a lower risk of newly diagnosed COPD. Study results concluded that people with the healthiest diet (based on AHEI-2010 diet scores) had a 33% less chance of developing COPD, without any effects by smoking status, compared to people with the least healthy diet.[1]
There is strong evidence to encourage incorporating foods like whole grains, nuts, sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in fish, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, walnuts and corn, soybean and safflower oils) and sources of long chain omega-3 fats (found in seafood like oily fish, lobster, mollusks and shrimp).[6][7] Researchers emphasized that this was equivalent to the risk reduction gained from quitting smoking or not smoking at all, though these findings support the importance of a healthy diet in a program that incorporates a number of interventions to prevent COPD.

How to Support COPD Nutrition

Before you make any major changes to your diet, besides eliminating refined carbohydrates, processed foods or excess sweets, talk to your doctor about what they recommend for you and your COPD. Some people with COPD find that they have a hard time maintaining their weight because their body is working harder to breathe. Eating a diet with more quality fats can help so your body does not have to work as hard to breathe, but you can also try these tips:

  • Eat plenty of fiber – A high-fiber diet is also important in COPD, so include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables that are naturally loaded with wholesome dietary fiber.
  • Stay well-hydrated – Drink 6 to 8 eight-ounce glasses of water to thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. Avoid carbonated beverages that may cause bloating, and limit your alcohol and caffeine intake.
  • Limit salt – Eliminating or reducing added salt in your diet helps prevent fluid retention, swelling and bloating, which may increase shortness of breath. Hint: Read the labels on packaged food and look for options with less than 300 milligrams of sodium per serving.
  • Limit gassy foods – A bloated belly increases the pressure against your diaphragm making breathing more difficult. Be cautious with beans, broccoli, cabbage, Brussel sprouts and cauliflower, and limit carbonated beverages and fried, spicy and greasy foods significantly.
    • Avoid empty calories – Chips, candy and other types of junk food offer no nutritional value, so avoid them.
  • Consider nutritional supplements – The American Thoracic Society recommends oral nutritional supplements for anyone who’s unintentionally lost more than 10% of their body weight in the last 6 months, or more than 5% of their body weight in the last month.[8] If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor.

Clearly, being mindful about what and how you eat can have an impact on your overall health, but you may even be able to improve your COPD symptoms by eating the right foods and getting the nutrition you need. Avoid processed and refined foods, and incorporate the right kinds of fats for the greatest benefits. Talk to your doctor before making major changes in your diet as they may need to monitor how your body responds.



[1] Scoditti, Egeria, et al. “Role of Diet in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Prevention and Treatment.” Nutrients, MDPI, 16 June 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627281/#B13-nutrients-11-01357.

[2] “Nutrition and COPD.” American Lung Association, American Lung Association, 1 Apr. 2020, www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/copd/living-with-copd/nutrition.

[3] Fink, Jennifer L.W. “COPD, Nutrition and the Keto Diet.” Healthgrades, Healthgrades, 27 Feb. 2019, www.healthgrades.com/right-care/copd/copd-nutrition-and-the-ketogenic-diet.

[4] Winwood, Russell. “The Ketogenic Diet for COPD Part 1.” COPD.net, Health Union, LLC., 11 Dec. 2018, copd.net/living/ketogenic-diet/.

[5] Varraso, Raphaëlle, et al. “Alternate Healthy Eating Index 2010 and Risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease among US Women and Men: Prospective Study.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 3 Feb. 2015, www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h286.

[6] “Facts about Polyunsaturated Fats: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 23 Apr. 2018, medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000747.htm.

[7] Nichols, Peter D, et al. “Long-Chain Omega-3 Oils-an Update on Sustainable Sources.” Nutrients, MDPI, June 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3257669/.

[8] Nici, Linda, et al. “American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society Statement on Pulmonary Rehabilitation.” American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 June 2006, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16760357.


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