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COPD and Nutrition: Eat Better, Breathe Better

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD is the 4th leading cause of death in the United States. Affecting the lungs, it is a progressive disease that makes breathing increasingly difficult over time and can make everyday activities like walking, cooking or eating burdensome. Symptoms include chronic cough (sometimes with mucus), wheezing, shortness of breath and a tightening feeling in the chest. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis (most people with COPD have both conditions) and approximately 24 million Americans are living with COPD.

The leading cause of COPD is cigarette smoking but long term exposure to other lung irritants (air pollution, dust, chemical fumes, etc...) can also be contributing factors. Though there is no cure for COPD, diet and lifestyle changes can help slow its progression and improve a person’s quality of life.

Prevention is the key in stopping the development of COPD. The most important step is to reduce exposure to lung irritants. Quitting smoking is paramount.

A diet rich in antioxidants may also help by reducing oxidative stress and inflammation that may contribute to COPD development. Antioxidants can be vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals and can be found in abundance in whole fruits and vegetables. Smokers tend to have lower plasma levels of antioxidants in their bodies which may help explain how they can develop COPD easily.

Nutrition and Emphysema
A person with emphysema is likely to be underweight due to increased energy needs from labored breathing and reduced intake of food. Malnutrition can further reduce the function of the respiratory system and can lead to complications throughout the whole body. Getting enough calories from food is important for reducing complications that are associated with malnourishment.

Nutrition and Chronic Bronchitis
In contrast to emphysema, a person with chronic bronchitis is more likely to be at a normal weight or even overweight. Excessive body weight may contribute to COPD complicated and labored breathing. Moving towards a healthy body weight is important for limiting additional complications.

Nutrition and COPD in general
Ensuring that enough calories are consumed is essential with COPD. Where calories come from is also important. Carbohydrates tend to produce more carbon dioxide which forces the lungs to work harder to expel the gas from our bodies. A diet that is lower in carbohydrate and higher in fat (while supplying enough protein) is usually prescribed.

A healthy diet will not cure COPD, but it may lessen the complications and make you feel better. Not only will you have more energy, but your body will be able to fight infection better.

Here are some other dietary tips from the American Association of Respiratory Care:

  • Too much sodium can cause you to retain fluids that may interfere with breathing so limit your salt intake.

  • Avoid foods that produce gas or make you feel bloated as this can impair breathing as well. The best process to use in eliminating foods from your diet is trial and error. Keep a diary of foods eaten to identify when you have issues with gas and bloating.

  • Try to eat your main meal early. This way, you will have lots of energy to carry you through the day.

  • Avoid foods that supply little or no nutritional value. Make sure you get the most nutrients for the calories you eat.

  • Try eating six small meals a day instead of three large ones. This will keep you from filling up your stomach and causing shortness of breath.

  • If you are using oxygen, be sure to wear your cannula while eating - and after meals, too. Eating and digestion require energy, and this causes your body to use more oxygen.

  • Try to eat in a relaxed atmosphere, and make your meals attractive and enjoyable.

  • Consult your physician if you have other dietary restrictions, such as ulcers, or if you are overweight or underweight.

Remember that these are general guidelines and your own medical doctor is your best source of specific information. Good nutrition and a balanced diet are essential to everyone's health, but those people facing lung disease must be even more careful than most about following good nutrition guidelines.

Orville Bigelow, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and the Manager of Nutrition Services for Project Angel Food. The mission of Project Angel Food is to nourish the body and spirit of men, women and children affected by HIV/AIDS, cancer and other life threatening illness. Information contained in this article is not to be construed as a replacement for advice from your medical doctor and is meant for general information purposes only. Information contained in this article is from the American Association of Respiratory Care, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and Medline.

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