Foods That May Worsen COPD Symptoms

4 Common Food-Groups That May Worsen COPD Symptoms

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans 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. Guidelines such as these play an important part in any healthy, well-balanced diet, especially for people with COPD.

Recent studies suggest that some of these foods, even though nutritious, may worsen COPD symptoms in a small number of patients, increasing cough and mucus production, and possibly even worsening shortness of breath.

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.

Limit Foods That Increase Mucus and Cough

Avoid Red Meat if You Have COPD
Avoid Red Meat if You Have COPD. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user John Rensten

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, recent 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. Limiting these foods may help reduce chronic respiratory problems, like​ a cough, and increased mucus, which are associated with COPD. 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
Avoid Carbonated Beverages. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user Stockbyte

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 most people, a 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. If any of the following foods cause you to feel gassy and bloated, lean toward other choices:

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

Go Easy on Nitrates

Bacon: A No-No For COPD
Bacon: A No-No For COPD. Photo courtesy of

A recent study, published in the European Respiratory Journal, finds 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. Nitrates may also worsen disease progression. 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, a moderate or occasional intake of nitrates is recommended. Foods that are high in nitrates include:

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

Watch Out for Food Allergens

Avoid glutens
Avoid glutens. Photo courtesy of Getty Images, user Jacob Snavely

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 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:

  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Wheat and cereals that contain glutens
  • Milk
  • Peanuts (one of the most allergenic foods that cause severe, often fatal allergic reactions)
  • Tree nuts, such as hazelnuts, walnuts or pecans
  • Soybeans
  • Crustaceans including crab, shrimp or lobster and mollusks such as snails or oysters

Remember, 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, here are some suggestions on what to include in your diet if you have COPD:


Butler, LM., et al. Prospective study of dietary patterns and persistent cough with phlegm among Chinese Singaporeans. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. Published ahead of print on November 4, 2005 as doi:10.1164/rccm.200506-901OC.

de Batlle, J., et. al. Cured meat consumption increases the risk of readmission in COPD patients. Eur Respir J. 2012 Sep;40(3):555-560. Epub 2012 Mar 9.

Jesenak M., et. al. Food allergens and respiratory symptoms. J Physiol Pharmacol. 2008 Dec;59 Suppl 6:311-20.

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