Committing to a healthy and balanced diet is one of the best favors you can do yourself and your body — whether you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or not. You get all your energy from your meals, after all, and that's important for your pulmonary function too.
If you want to "let food be your medicine", that, let's face it, is going to require a long, hard, and honest look at your current diet. Though you're bound to have a pretty good idea of what's healthy food and what's junk food, you may not be aware what kinds of steps will concretely help reduce your COPD symptoms, giving you a better quality of life. Working with a nutritionist or dietitian is your best bet, but in the meantime, here are some dietary tips that will positively impact the lung function of COPD patients.
Why a healthy weight matters so much for COPD patients
While most folks just breathe, never having to think about it, COPD patients are different — you may really need to toil as you breathe. People with COPD may use up to 15 percent more energy than others even while they're not being physically active. All this extra effort ultimately means you'll burn more calories, which explains why so many COPD patients lose pound after pound without trying, sometimes dropping to dangerously low weights.
You may also have other symptoms that place you at a higher risk of unwanted and unhealthy weight loss, like:
- Finding it hard to chew or swallow while you're out of breath, or coughing bouts interfering with mealtimes.
- A habit of breathing through your mouth can make food less tasty.
- Being too tired to eat.
- Medications you take may cause weight loss as a side effect.
- A significant number of COPD patients are depressed, which is also associated with appetite and weight loss.
In addition to getting on the scale and working out what your body mass index (BMI) is, it's also useful to look at your so-called fat-free mass, or FFM — which is, basically, all your weight that's not made up of fat tissue. Doctors have different ways of determining your FFM. Ask them if you are considered underweight, and what you can do to increase your caloric intake.
Is a high-fat, low-carb diet right for you?
The respiratory quotient, or RQ, is a fairly technical thing to understand, but it matters when choosing your diet. RQ refers to the ration of carbon dioxide you produce while metabolizing food vs oxygen expended in the process. All the major kinds of nutrients you get — carbs, fat, and protein — lead to carbon dioxide production as your metabolism works, but not in equal amounts. Eating carbs will lead to a much higher carbon dioxide production than eating fat, and this is why, in short, some COPD patients will do better on a diet higher in fat but lower in carbohydrates. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist about this.
Some COPD patients will need more protein
While every COPD patient's specific protein needs will be different, something you should discuss with a nutritionist or at least your regular doctor, protein plays an important role in the diet. If you get enough, your muscles and lungs will be stronger, while insufficient protein intake can lead to weight loss (with consequences we've already looked at), fatigue, and even appetite reduction.
You should try to eat a diet in which proteins make up about 20 percent of your diet, including dairy, eggs, fish, and poultry — not just for the protein itself, but also the vitamins and minerals these foods offer.
What vitamins and minerals are especially important to COPD patients?
Everyone benefits from a diet that contains adequate minerals and vitamins, but there are a few nutrients COPD patients should especially pay attention to:
- Because COPD causes inflammation and the corticosteroids used in its treatment place you at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis (brittle bones), it's especially important to make sure you take dietary steps to combat this condition. Adequate calcium and vitamin D intake are both important. Take a calcium/vitamin D supplement, but also try to get foods that contain them through your diet. Research has shown that this won't just help you fight osteoporosis; getting enough vitamin D also reduces the number of COPD flareups you'll experience.
- Studies have also shown that COPD patients who continue to smoke have added oxidative stress as well as more inflammation and a more impaired flow of air. Stopping smoking, if you still do, is the best thing you can do to improve your prognosis. However, if you do smoke, it's key to take in adequate amounts of vitamin C. This will boost your lung function, but it's no substitute for stopping smoking. Also add other antioxidants, like vitamin E, beta carotene, and selenium to your diet. While supplements can do this, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is even better.
Fluids are important, but alcohol and caffeine should be avoided
Making sure you stay properly hydrated is essential as a COPD patient, as it will dilute your phlegm and make it easier to eliminate. Follow the same recommendations everyone else should — aim for eight to 10 large glasses of water, something you can best achieve by always having some water on the go. Do not wait until you get thirsty to have some water!
Not all fluids are good, though! Keep in mind that:
- Caffeinated beverages, which include some sugary drinks and teas as well as obviously coffee, can interact with your COPD medications. Ask your doctor whether you can keep caffeine to a minimum, or if you should completely banish it from your life.
- Alcoholic drinks are also bad news, not just because they can change the way in which your medications work, but also because it can make breathing and the expulsion of sputum that much harder.
- People who have heart disease in addition to COPD may actually need to limit the amount of fluids they get. If you're in this position, your doctor will have told you all about it, but always ask if you have more questions.
Eating with COPD: Diet matters, but so does how and when you eat
Plan your most important meals around the time you feel most energetic, often mornings, for instance, and rest up before eating if you feel you need to. Take your time, don't rush, because eating too quickly may lead you to swallow air and have trouble breathing. Smaller but more nutrient-dense meals will give you maximum energy with minimum effort, and picking foods that are easier to swallow will help you not get tired from chewing. Do remember to sit up properly as you eat, to offer maximum lung capacity.