Nutritional Counseling and Weight Management

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: September 2023

The food you eat and your body weight can affect your breathing. This is why nutritional counseling is an important part of managing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There is no single diet that works for everyone with COPD.1,2

Dietitians and nutritionists are experts in using food to improve health. They can teach you how to plan and follow a healthy diet. They can also help you find a healthy body weight. Some nutritionists specialize in COPD. Talk to them to plan a healthy diet that works for you.1

Why does eating a healthy diet help people with COPD?

Food contains nutrients that are transformed into energy. This powers all of your body’s functions, including breathing. Breathing requires more energy for people with COPD. You may need 10 times more calories than someone without COPD. A diet that provides you with enough nutrients can help improve breathing.1

Also, when your stomach is too full after a big meal, you may get increased shortness of breath. Try to eat smaller meals more often. This can help you reduce breathlessness and manage your body weight.3

It is important for people with COPD to drink plenty of water. This can keep you hydrated and keep mucus thin. A good goal is 6 to 8 glasses of fluid every day. It is better to spread this out over the entire day. This does not include drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol, which should be limited.1,3

How does a healthy body weight help people with COPD?

During nutritional counseling, you may undergo tests to find out:2

  • If your body weight is healthy
  • What your goal weight should be
  • How many calories to consume each day to maintain a healthy body weight

Being overweight or underweight can worsen symptoms of COPD. If you are overweight, your heart and lungs use more energy, which requires more oxygen. Extra weight in the stomach can put pressure on the breathing muscles. This forces them to work harder and can cause:4

  • Tiredness
  • Breathlessness
  • Difficulty staying active
  • Other medical conditions

Many people with COPD find it hard to keep or gain weight. If you are underweight, your body may not get enough energy from nutrition. This can:3,4

  • Weaken your breathing muscles
  • Make you feel more tired
  • Decrease your appetite
  • Lead to more weight loss

People who are underweight also have a higher risk of getting respiratory (breathing) infections. These can lead to COPD flare-ups.3,4

How can following a healthy diet improve COPD symptoms?

A healthy diet can ensure your body gets enough nutrients to function well. This can help improve your COPD symptoms by:1,2,5

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Increasing energy levels
  • Improving mental health
  • Improving muscle strength
  • Reducing breathlessness
  • Lowering the risk of respiratory infections and COPD flare-ups

What foods can benefit people with COPD?

A healthy diet for anyone, including people with COPD, is a balance. Try to get enough different food groups that provide nutrients. In general, diets with less sugar and more fat help you breathe easier.1

As part of nutritional counseling, people who are overweight can get advice about a diet that will help them lose weight. This may include how to reduce calories. It may also include how to eat smaller meals more often throughout the day.4

If you are underweight, you can get advice about foods to help you gain weight. This may include how to add calories to your diet. It may also include how to improve appetite or reduce tiredness.4

There is not much evidence of any specific foods helping people with COPD. In general, beneficial foods for people with COPD include:1,2,4

  • Complex carbohydrates (pasta, fresh fruits and vegetables) instead of simple carbohydrates (sugars, candy)
  • High-fiber foods (nuts, seeds, whole-grain bread and pastas)
  • High-protein foods (milk, eggs, cheese, meat)
  • Foods with unsaturated fats (oils, nuts) instead of saturated fats (butter, lard)
  • Foods high in vitamins and minerals

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