Nutritional Counseling and Weight Management Overview

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: July 2015. | Last updated: April 2018

What is nutritional counseling?1

Nutritional counseling is a key part of the pulmonary rehabilitation program for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). As part of the program, experts called “dieticians” teach patients about how to plan and follow a healthy diet.

Why is eating a healthy diet important for COPD patients?1

Food contains nutrients that are transformed into energy, which powers all of the body’s functions. Even activities such as breathing and sleeping need energy from nutrition.

People with COPD need up to 10 times more energy to breathe than people with healthy lungs do. For this reason, it is especially important for COPD patients to follow a diet that provides their bodies with enough of the right kinds of nutrients.

When the stomach is too full after a big meal, it can cause increased shortness of breath. People with COPD are usually advised to eat smaller meals more often. This can help reduce breathlessness.

As part of a healthy diet, COPD patients also need to make sure that they drink enough of the right kinds of fluids. Unless they have been advised to limit fluid intake, COPD patients should usually drink at least 6 to 8 8-oz glasses of fluids everyday. This does not include drinks that contain caffeine or alcohol, which should be limited. Drinking enough fluids every day can make mucus thinner and easier to clear from the lungs.

Why do COPD patients need to maintain a healthy body weight?1

During the pulmonary rehabilitation program, a COPD patient will undergo tests to find out:

  • If the patient has a healthy body weight
  • What the patient’s “goal” weight should be
  • How many calories the patient should consume each day in order to maintain a healthy body weight

Being overweight or underweight can make symptoms worse for COPD patients. The heart and lungs of people who are overweight have to use more energy to function, which requires more oxygen. Carrying extra weight in the stomach area can put pressure on the breathing muscles, which forces them to work harder. This can cause symptoms like tiredness and breathlessness. It can also make it harder to exercise or be active.

Being underweight can make a person feel more tired, because the body does not receive enough energy from nutrition. This can make the person’s breathing muscles weaker, which can make it harder to breathe well. It can make the person feel more tired and be less active. Patients who are underweight also have a higher risk of getting respiratory infections, which are a common cause of COPD flare-ups.

How can following a healthy diet improve COPD symptoms?1,2

By following a healthy diet, patients can make sure that their bodies are receiving enough nutrients to function well. This can help patients to improve their COPD symptoms, by:

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

What kinds of food can benefit people with COPD?2

As part of their nutritional counseling, patients who are overweight will get advice about planning a diet that will help them to lose weight. Underweight patients receive advice about foods that can help them to gain weight.

In general, the following foods are beneficial for people with COPD:

  • High-fiber foods
  • High-protein foods
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Foods high in vitamins and minerals

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