Nutrition for Lung Health

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2022 | Last updated: December 2022

What you eat can play a big role in your lung health. Maintaining a healthy weight, partly through diet choices, can be especially important when you are managing lung issues. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), MAC lung disease, and more can all be affected by nutrition. Not getting the right nutrients (malnutrition) or not eating enough can make lung problems worse.1-4

Changing energy needs

Your body gets energy from food. The calories in the proteins, fats, and carbohydrates you eat are the source of this energy. When you walk, talk, move, or even breathe, you are using energy.1,2

Eating enough calories and a balanced diet can fulfill your energy needs and keep you functioning. However, there are times when your energy needs change and your diet has to keep up.1,2

Needing more energy

When you have difficulty breathing, like with a condition such as COPD or MAC, you need to use extra muscles around your belly and ribs to take a deep breath. Using these muscles requires extra energy. Your body also needs more energy to fight inflammation and infection.1-4

If these situations occur and you do not take in more calories, you might lose weight. Losing too much weight can lead to fatigue, worse lung symptoms such as shortness of breath, and a lower quality of life. It can also make you less able to fight germs and inflammation.1-4

Needing less energy

On the other hand, lung symptoms may make it hard to exercise or do daily activities. If you are moving less, you need less energy from food. If you are using less energy but taking in the same amount of food, you will gain weight. Being overweight or obese can worsen lung problems and lead to other health problems like heart-related issues.1,2,5

It is important to find a balance in the calories you take in. Eating enough to enable you to exercise will help your body circulate oxygen better. Not being active at all can decrease your ability to move oxygen around your body.1,2,5

Malnutrition and MAC lung disease

MAC lung disease is a type of infection that can cause inflammation and lung damage. In some cases, MAC can cause difficulty breathing. These all change the body’s energy needs and can lead to weight loss.2,4

Also, many of the drugs used to treat MAC have side effects that can affect appetite. Side effects that may worsen weight loss include:2,4

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Decreased hunger
  • Bowel problems

Research has even suggested that people with malnutrition at the start of MAC treatment are more likely to have trouble completing their treatment plan. This is called treatment intolerance, and it can make curing the infection take longer. People without good nutrition also are more likely to have weakness, fever, and more shortness of breath.3

Creating a diet plan

If you are diagnosed with a lung issue like COPD or MAC lung disease, talk with your doctor about your diet. They can tell you what your basic needs are to keep your body in the best state possible. They may also refer you to a dietician or nutritionist. Many clinics have one of these experts on staff or know of options nearby (or online).2,6

Nutritionists can help you create an eating plan that makes the most sense for you. They can also help you adjust to your changing nutritional needs over time and recommend any appropriate supplements.2,6

What is in a balanced diet?

A strong, balanced diet includes good sources of protein, enough calories to meet your energy needs, and a mix of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Antioxidants are nutrients that can help fight infection and inflammation.

Good sources of protein include:2,4

  • Meat, including beef, poultry, and fish
  • Beans
  • Tofu
  • Eggs

Eating enough fruits and vegetables is also key. These take some effort for your body to break down and contain lots of vitamins. Fruits and vegetables that have important nutrients include:1,2

  • Mangoes
  • Oranges
  • Bell peppers
  • Dark, leafy greens like kale or collard greens

Finally, drinking plenty of water helps keep your body functioning to the best of its ability. It also helps to thin and clear out mucus.1,2

Some foods increase inflammation and should be avoided when possible. These include processed sugars, processed meats, and simple carbohydrates like white bread and soda. Your dietician or nutritionist can help determine what foods might be best to skip in your situation.1,2

What to do if you are having trouble eating well

If you do not have enough of an appetite to fulfill your body’s needs, talk to your doctor. They may be able to recommend treatments to help or adjust your current plan. In some cases, vitamin supplements or meal replacement drinks may be a good option.2,4

However, supplements can affect the way drugs work, including those you are taking for other health issues. Before starting any new supplement or meal replacement option, check with your doctor.2,4

Other tips to help you get enough nutrition include:7

  • Rest before eating.
  • Eat earlier in the day or whenever you tend to have the most energy.
  • Avoid foods that give you gas or make you bloat. Gas and bloating can make it harder to breathe.
  • Eat smaller meals more often throughout the day.
  • Drink liquids 1 hour after a meal if liquids make you feel too full to eat.

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