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Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a disease where your airways become inflamed from long-term exposure to harmful particles or gases.
This inflammation limits airflow and makes breathing difficult.
Diet can help you manage COPD by reducing its symptoms and by preventing associated disease complications.
This article explains what to eat and avoid with COPD and provides a sample COPD diet menu.
Causes and risk factors
COPD is a common lung disease.
Up to 20% of Americans are estimated to have COPD (1).
The condition is also prevalent in other regions of the world, including Europe, Africa, South-East Asia, the Middle East, and Central and South America (1).
Tobacco smoking is the most common risk factor for COPD worldwide. However, a significant number of people with COPD have never smoked (2).
For example, the genetic disorder alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency can damage the lungs and eventually lead to COPD.
- increasing age
- chronic asthma
- second-hand smoke
- crop and animal farming
- dust exposure (coal mining)
- outdoor air pollution
- chemical exposure (plastic production)
COPD also has a genetic component where some people are more likely to develop the disease than others due to exposure to harmful particles or gases (4).
COPD is a disease of the lungs that causes breathing problems, usually from long-term exposure to harmful particles or gases like tobacco smoke and other pollutants.
These harmful particles and gases cause inflammation that narrows your airways and reduces your lung’s ability to work efficiently.
As a result, you may develop symptoms like (4):
- difficulty breathing
- persistent cough
- shortness of breath with exercise
- chest tightness
You may also experience unintended weight loss due to a decreased appetite and because your lungs work harder to supply oxygen, which burns more calories (5).
Diagnosis and treatment
To diagnose COPD, your doctor will likely review your health history and any symptoms you have been experiencing.
If suspected, your doctor will perform a spirometry test to confirm a diagnosis (6).
A spirometry test measures how much air you can maximally inhale and how quickly you exhale it.
Your doctor can then use the results to classify the severity of your airflow limitation and — with the assessment of other factors — develop an appropriate treatment plan with you (6).
Part of this treatment plan should involve changes to your diet to reduce COPD symptoms and the risk of complications.
A diet for COPD can help you prevent unintended weight loss, reduce muscle loss, and improve lung function (7).
Foods to avoid
With COPD and other lung diseases like cystic fibrosis, you may require more calories than you otherwise would to maintain your body weight.
However, to ensure you’re getting enough of the nutrients you need, avoid consuming foods and drinks that provide little nutritional value.
Foods and drinks to avoid with COPD include:
- Fried foods: churros, french fries, corn dogs, egg rolls, fried chicken, onion rings, mozzarella sticks
- Sweets and desserts: candy, chocolate, doughnuts, cookies, cakes, pies, frozen dairy desserts
- Processed meats: sausages, hot dogs, salami, ham, bacon, beef jerky, smoked meats, canned meat
- Sugary drinks: regular soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks, coffee and tea beverages with added sugars
- Alcohol: beer, whiskey, wine, vodka, other cocktails
Foods to eat
Consuming enough calories can be difficult with COPD, especially if you lack an appetite.
Therefore, make sure the foods you consume contain plenty of protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals.
Good options include:
- Fruits: avocados, apples, bananas, berries, grapes, melons, oranges, peaches, plums, etc.
- Vegetables: beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, onions, peppers, salad greens, etc.
- Whole-grains and starches: bread, pasta, rice, oats, potatoes
- Dairy: milk, yogurt, cottage cheese
- Healthy proteins: salmon, tilapia, pork loin, tenderloin steak, chicken, turkey, eggs
- Nuts, seeds, and oils: almonds, walnuts, flaxseeds, pumpkins seeds, sunflower seeds, canola oil, olive oil
In fact, a low intake of fruits and vegetables may be why some people develop COPD when exposed to harmful chemicals (13).
If you struggle with getting enough calories, eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks.
Home-made high-calorie shakes or premixed protein supplements can also help you meet your nutrition needs.
You can buy premixed protein supplements online.
One-day sample COPD diet
Here is an example of a one-day sample COPD diet that includes plenty of anti-inflammatory foods.
- two eggs scrambled
- two slices of whole-wheat toast with peanut butter
- 1 cup (226 grams) of cottage cheese
- handful of almonds
- 3 ounces (85 grams) of chicken breast, grilled
- a salad made with:
- 6 Roma tomatoes, diced
- 1 English cucumber, diced
- 1/2 cup (15 grams) fresh parsley leaves, chopped
- Salt and black pepper to taste
- 2 tbsp (28 grams) extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp (10 grams) freshly squeezed lemon juice
- a shake made with:
- one scoop of whey protein powder
- 1 cup (240 mL) milk
- 1 cup (140 grams) frozen berries
- 3 cups (84 grams) fresh spinach
- handful of ice
- 1 cup (140 grams) whole-wheat spaghetti
- make with garlic, olive oil, salt, and pepper
- 4 ounces (113 grams) of salmon, baked
- lemon juice for seasoning
- 1 cup (227 grams) Greek yogurt
Vitamin D and lung function
While classified as a vitamin, vitamin D is more of a hormone.
More than 30 organs, including your lungs, have vitamin D receptors where vitamin D binds to exert a range of functions (14).
As such, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends supplementing with vitamin D if you have COPD (18).
While it is possible to maintain an adequate level of vitamin D through a healthy diet, few foods naturally contain the vitamin.
Therefore, a supplement is a more effective and efficient way to restore and maintain optimal vitamin D levels, especially if you have trouble eating enough calories to maintain your bodyweight.
Depending on the severity of the deficiency, you may require a higher dose of vitamin D than what you can purchase online or in stores to efficiently restore your level of the vitamin.
You can vitamin D supplements online.
Exercise and COPD
While your nutrition is an important component for managing COPD, exercise should be too.
By strengthening your lungs, heart, and other muscles, exercise can make it easier for you to complete daily activities without becoming winded and having to take frequent breaks from them.
Activities like preparing meals, laundry, cleaning, and walking your dog become less exhausting with regular exercise.
Talk with your doctor about pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that consists of exercise and education led by a team of health care providers.
The bottom line
COPD occurs when your airways become inflamed from long-term exposure to harmful particles or gases.
Eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains may improve your lung function and reduce complications.
Supplementing with vitamin D and participating in a pulmonary rehabilitation program can also improve your lung function and make it easier to complete daily tasks.