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What to Know About Diet and COPD

COPD Basics

August 11, 2023

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Photography by OKrasyuk/Getty Images

Photography by OKrasyuk/Getty Images

by Stephanie Orford

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Medically Reviewed by:

Jerlyn Jones, MS MPA RDN LD CLT

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•••••

by Stephanie Orford

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Jerlyn Jones, MS MPA RDN LD CLT

•••••

•••••

Fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods are key, and coffee is OK too. But processed foods and alcohol are among the usual suspects.

Research suggests that your diet matters when it comes to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And that’s empowering, because you can support your health with what you eat — a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory compounds.

What’s healthy to eat when you have COPD is similar to what’s healthy for anyone. So if you focus on eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet, you’re on the right track.

We’ll give you a few specific foods to include and avoid plus a 1-day meal plan to get you started.

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How does diet affect COPD?

A 2019 research review suggests that diet can play a large role in the prevention and treatment of COPD.

According to the research, eating a balanced diet full of nutrient-dense foods with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties has been associated with:

  • improved lung function
  • less decline in lung function
  • reduced risk of COPD

The review also indicates that eating processed foods filled with added sugar and preservatives instead of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and fish may contribute to the development of chronic health conditions, including COPD.

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Foods to eat

Do your best to eat a balanced diet rich in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods.

Here are some foods that may improve lung function or symptoms of COPD, according to a 2021 review:

  • Fruits: apples, pears, berries, citrus fruits, peaches, melons, and more
  • Vegetables: lettuce, spinach, carrots, celery, squash, garlic, mushrooms, beets, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, and more
  • Legumes: beans, peas, chickpeas, string beans, lentils, peanuts
  • Poultry: turkey or chicken with no skin
  • Fish: fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, and tuna

You may also choose to prioritize specific ingredients for their health benefits.

Polyphenols are found in plant foods and act as antioxidants, which can help protect your cells from damage. Polyphenol-rich foods include olive oil, coffee, tea, and many of the fruits and vegetables listed above.

Eating fiber may reduce your risk of other chronic diseases and improve your digestion. Some examples of high fiber foods are apples, pears, almonds, chia seeds, Brussels sprouts, avocado, and whole grains such as oats and quinoa.

The spice turmeric contains curcumin, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound.

An extra serving can go a long way

In a 2017 study, researchers followed 44,335 Swedish men ages 45–79 for about 13 years. Participants who reported consuming large amounts of fruits and vegetables had a lower risk of COPD, regardless of whether they smoked.

Each serving of fruits and vegetables the men reported eating on a daily basis incrementally decreased their risk of COPD. In other words, an extra serving of fruit or vegetables may not seem like much, but it can go a long way when consumed every day.

Foods to avoid

The typical Western (American) diet is low in fruits and vegetables and high in processed meats, refined grains, and added sugar.

A 2016 study focusing on the diets of people in Spain who smoked found impaired lung function among participants who consumed a “Western-like” diet.

In comparison, the study found that a Mediterranean diet of poultry, fish, fruits, and vegetables may be associated with preserved lung function.

But the Western diet isn’t the only eating pattern that can cause problems. In a 2005 study, participants who ate a diet of meat, preserved foods, rice, noodles, and deep-fried foods had a 1.4 times greater risk of cough with phlegm than those whose diet was primarily plant-based.

Here are some specific foods that research has found to be associated with a higher risk of COPD or worsening COPD symptoms:

  • Refined grains: white bread, crackers, white rice
  • Refined sugar: soda, cereal, sugar or syrup added to foods or drinks
  • Cured meats: bacon, ham, sausage, hot dogs
  • Red meat: beef, pork, lamb
  • Desserts: sweet foods that often combine refined grains and refined sugar

Keep in mind that the food you eat on a daily basis is what matters most. Eating red meat or dessert once in a while won’t significantly increase your risk. But if you notice that certain foods make your symptoms worse, consider avoiding them.

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What should you not drink with COPD?

Limiting your alcohol consumption may help. Studies have shown an association between heavy alcohol intake and reduced lung function.

Some older research also suggests that drinking alcohol can lower your levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that helps protect your lungs.

If you drink coffee, you’ll be happy to know that drinking caffeine seems not to be associated with less favorable outcomes in COPD — at least not according to one small 2015 study. Consuming caffeine may even improve lung function, although the study found this result only in participants who did not smoke.

Coffee and tea contain beneficial compounds such as polyphenols, which may help reduce inflammation associated with COPD.

It’s also important to drink enough water throughout the day. Drinking water can help thin the mucus in your airways and allow you to cough it out more easily.

Diets to consider

Studies have shown that diets packed with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish can help reduce your risk with COPD — and you can combine these foods in many creative ways.

Following an eating plan can help get you started on the right track. Beneficial eating plans contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties to protect your cells from damage and support your immune system.

In a 2016 study, smokers who followed a Mediterranean diet had preserved lung function compared to those who primarily ate processed meats, refined grains, and added sugar.

The Mediterranean diet includes:

  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • eggs
  • poultry
  • fish
  • legumes
  • nuts

If you live with COPD, there are different diets and eating plans that may be beneficial for your health. You can speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian to get a plan that’s tailored for you.

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Meal plan example

Here’s a 1-day meal plan with foods that may be helpful when living with COPD. You can consider this a general guide and substitute other beneficial foods. You can add or remove snacks and increase or decrease meal sizes according to your needs.

And when you’re putting food on your plate, keep in mind that proportions are key.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends filling up half your plate with fruit and vegetables, while whole grains and a protein source can each take up one-quarter.

Breakfast

  • a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, banana, and unsweetened dairy or plant-based milk (optional: a spoonful of your favorite nut butter)
  • coffee or tea with unsweetened dairy or plant-based milk (optional: monk fruit sweetener)

Morning snack

  • fresh or dried blueberries, unsweetened
  • a handful of almonds

Lunch

  • chicken chili with white beans, corn, bell peppers, and spinach
  • whole grain toast topped with hummus
  • water or tea

Afternoon snack

  • an apple
  • a thumb-size piece of cheddar cheese

Dinner

  • salmon or trout baked with olive oil, garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, and parsley
  • roasted broccoli drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese
  • steamed brown rice
  • water or agua fresca

Evening snack

  • cottage cheese with chopped cantaloupe
  • a small piece of dark chocolate
  • herbal tea

Takeaway

There’s no one-size-fits-all eating plan, but enjoying your food is essential whether you have COPD or not. A balanced diet rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods may help reduce your symptoms — and it can be delicious.

Load up on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and fish and limit your consumption of processed meats, refined carbs, and other processed foods. Your body will thank you for it.

Medically reviewed on August 11, 2023

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