These Foods Could Exacerbate COPD Symptoms

Otherwise 'Healthy' Foods That May Worsen COPD Symptoms

Are there supposedly healthy foods that actually make chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) worse? In our health-conscious, diet-conscious world, this is a very important question.

Healthy Foods That May Worsen COPD

Dietary guidelines play an important part in a healthy well-balanced diet. They place great emphasis on calorie restriction and increasing physical activity. They also encourage us to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, and fat-free and low-fat dairy products while limiting sodium, added sugars, refined grains and saturated and trans-fats. Studies are telling us, however, that some of these "healthy" foods, even though nutritious, may worsen COPD symptoms.

We've learned that for people with COPD, some of these recommended foods in our current dietary guidelines may increase cough and mucus production. Others may cause bloating which worsens shortness of breath. Some foods may increase COPD exacerbations, and that's not even including foods which may cause respiratory problems due to allergies.

If your symptoms get worse after eating certain foods, it may not be a coincidence. Start paying close attention to how your body reacts to the foods you eat, especially the ones from the following list. If you can identify a pattern, you may be able to pinpoint which food is responsible for your problematic reaction. Once the food is identified, you can choose to either limit or eliminate it completely, from your daily diet.

Let's take a look at the foods which can worsen COPD symptoms.

Limit Foods That Increase Mucus and Cough

Mature businessman eating French fries
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Most of us have been led to believe that excess mucus production and a worsening cough are direct consequences of consuming too much dairy. Although it's true that products like milk, cheese, and yogurt may thicken mucus, dairy products do not typically increase mucus production or worsen a cough.

On the contrary, studies suggest that a meaty, salty, starchy diet does. In fact, people who eat a diet rich in meat, refined starches, and sodium are 1.43 times more likely to have a persistent productive cough than those whose diet consists mostly of soy and fruit (a vegetable-fruit-soy diet.)

Limiting meaty, starchy, and salty foods may help reduce chronic respiratory problems.

Which foods fall into this category? Check out the following:

  • Pork, chicken, fish, and red or processed meats
  • Sweets and desserts
  • French fries and other fried dishes
  • Noodle dishes, especially those containing white pasta
  • Preserved and processed foods
  • Refined grains

Cut Down on Foods That Cause Gas and Bloating

Avoid Carbonated Beverages
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Certainly, cruciferous vegetables are delicious and nutritious, but they're also notorious for causing gas and bloating. And they're not the only foods behind these annoying—and sometimes embarrassing—symptoms.

For many people, the gas that leads to bloating can be quite uncomfortable. For people with COPD, however, bloating can create increased pressure on the diaphragm that may worsen dyspnea (the subjective feeling of shortness of breath.) If any of the following foods cause you to feel gassy and bloated, lean toward other choices:

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kale
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Cauliflower
  • Bok choy
  • Radishes
  • Fried chicken and other fried, greasy foods
  • Carbonated beverages

Go Easy on Nitrates

Bacon in a frying pan
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Studies have found that a diet high in cured meats may increase the risk of developing COPD, but what effect may it have on those already living with the disease?

A study published in the European Respiratory Journal found that eating large amounts of nitrates (substances used to preserve cured meats) may aggravate COPD symptoms so badly that hospitalization for ​COPD exacerbation is necessary. In this study, it was found that high intake of cured meats increased the incidence of COPD exacerbations requiring hospitalization. It's also thought that nitrates may worsen disease progression.

In addition to these symptoms, nitrates may increase the risk of cancer, and we know that people with COPD already have an increased of lung cancer.

What's considered too large an amount? Researchers say that eating more than one slice of ham per day is all it takes to have this effect. In order to avoid this risk, it's a good idea to limit the number of nitrates in your diet. Foods that are high in nitrates include:

  • Hot dogs
  • Bacon
  • Cold cuts and other processed luncheon meats
  • Ham

Watch Out for Food Allergens

Top view of eggs in bowl, Fresh Egg With Bowl on old wood background
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Some people, including people with COPD, are highly sensitive to food allergens. Food allergies are associated with worsening respiratory symptoms, including a cough, shortness of breath, wheezing and bronchospasm. If you've been diagnosed with food allergies, then you probably already know what you can—and cannot—eat. But if your symptoms tend to get worse after you eat, and you're unable to attribute them to any other justifiable cause, perhaps an underlying food allergy is a reason. The following foods account for the majority of all allergic reactions:

What Should You Eat When You Have COPD?

Almonds, walnuts and brazilian nuts in containers, close-up
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Studies have evaluated what foods may worsen COPD symptoms, as noted above, but have also looked at foods which are linked to a higher or lower risk of developing the disease in the first place. We don't what effects these foods have on somebody who already has the disease, but it's likely that understanding this research can't hurt.

The 2015 Nurses Health study looked at dietary habits associated with the development of COPD. Those who had a high "Alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010" were less likely to develop COPD.

 A high dietary score is linked with a:

  • High intake of whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, nuts, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Low intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

Another study found an inverse relationship between the consumption of fish and the development of COPD. In other words, eating more fish is linked with a lower risk of developing the disease.

General Eating Tips for Those with COPD

Keep in mind that maintaining a healthy weight for your height and bone structure is most important when choosing an eating plan. If you're concerned with being overweight or underweight, talk with your health care provider about modifying your diet and beginning an exercise program. In the meantime, take some time to check out these best foods for a COPD diet.

Even when you make healthy food choices, however, symptoms such as shortness of breath can interfere. Make sure to check out these tips to avoid shortness of breath while eating with COPD

Finally, considering that lung cancer is the number one cause of cancer deaths in both men and women in the United States, and that COPD is an independent risk factor for lung cancer (COPD raises the risk of lung cancer even in people who haven't smoked,) you may wish to check out these superfoods that may reduce lung cancer risk.


Berthon, B., and L. Wood. Nutrition and Respiratory Health—Feature Review. Nutrients. 2015. 7(3):1618-43.

Sicherer, S. Respiratory Manifestations of Food Allergy. UpToDate. Updated 02/23/16.

Varraso, R., Chiuve, S., Fung, T., Barr, R., Hu, F., Willett, W., and C. Camargo. Alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010 and Risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Among US Women and Men: Prospective Study. BMJ. 2015. 350:h286.

Varraso, R., Barr, R., Willett, W., Speizer, F., and C. Camargo. Fish Intake and Risk of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease in 2 Large US Cohorts. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015. 101(2):354-61.

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