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Meal Planning

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

For patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), meal planning can help to make sure that they are consuming enough of the right kinds of nutrients to power the body’s functions.

Some COPD patients find that they become breathless while they eat, or right after they eat. This can make eating uncomfortable and can make patients more likely to skip meals and avoid eating. But there are ways that COPD patients can avoid or lessen this problem, such as:

  • Clearing mucus from the airways an hour before eating
  • Taking small bites, and chewing food slowly
  • Drinking liquids after the meal, instead of during it
  • Eating while sitting up
  • Using breathing strategies, such as pursed-lip breathing
  • Using oxygen therapy while eating, if prescribed

COPD patients are also usually advised to eat 5-6 small meals per day, rather than 3 large meals. Smaller meals require less effort to eat, which can help COPD patients conserve their energy. Having a very full stomach can put pressure on the lungs and breathing muscles, which can make it harder to breathe. Eating smaller meals can also reduce the risk of heartburn and indigestion.1,2

Which foods are good for people with COPD?

Foods that are high in fiber are helpful for patients with COPD. Fiber helps food to move though the digestive system, and can help control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. High-fiber foods include:

  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Peas and beans
  • Bran
  • Pasta
  • Rice

Foods made with milk contain calcium and Vitamin D that can help to keep bones healthy. Many people with COPD have bones that become weak and brittle, and consuming enough calcium in addition to exercising can help prevent that problem.

High-protein foods can provide energy as well as helping to fight off infections. COPD patients should try to include protein in every meal. Good sources of protein include:

  • Lean meats
  • Fish
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Nuts
  • Cottage cheese
  • Peanut butter, or other nut butters
  • Protein powders, which can be added to foods and drinks

Fresh fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that COPD patients need. Starchy vegetables are good choices, such as:

  • Beets
  • Corn
  • Carrots
  • Squash

Phosphorus is a mineral that plays an important role in nutrition, including getting the best out of a person’s lung function. Up to half of COPD patients may have phosphorus levels that are too low. This can be caused by certain types of COPD medications, as well as by poor nutrition. To make sure that they are getting enough phosphorus, COPD patients should include these foods in their diets:

  • Milk
  • Cheese
  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans

Magnesium is another important mineral that helps to keep breathing muscles strong. Foods high in magnesium include:

  • Dark green vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Beans, peas and lentils
  • Tofu
  • Seafood

COPD patients who need to gain weight should plan a diet that includes high calorie foods and drinks, such as shakes. COPD patients who need to lose weight should try to eat smaller portions of nutritious foods.1,2,3

Which foods should COPD patients avoid?

Some foods are more likely to cause gas and bloating, which can increase breathlessness. These include soft drinks and foods that are fried, greasy and spicy. Certain fruits and vegetables can also cause gas for some people, such as:

  • Cabbage
  • Beans
  • Broccoli
  • Avocados
  • Apples
  • Melons

Eating too much salt can also cause breathing problems, because it can make the body retain water. Patients can lower their salt intake by:

  • Not adding salt to their food when cooking or eating
  • Using herbs or salt substitutes in recipes in place of salt
  • Reading the labels of processed food carefully, to check for salt content

Patients with COPD should also avoid food and drinks that contain:

  • Alcohol – such as beer, wine, and liquor
  • Caffeine – such as coffee, tea, chocolate, and certain soft drinks
  • Food additives

Alcohol and caffeine can both interact badly with some types of COPD medications. Drinking alcohol can also slow down a person’s breathing, which may be harmful for people with COPD.

“Food additives” are chemicals or substances that are added to processed food. They are often added to make food look or taste better, or to preserve food so that it lasts longer. However, these food additives can cause inflammation for some COPD patients.1,2

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