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Nutrition Guidelines for People with COPD

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What do I need to know about nutrition and COPD?

COPD increases your risk for malnutrition. Malnutrition occurs when you do not get enough calories or nutrients to keep you healthy. Nutrients include protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Malnutrition can increase your risk for lung infections and other health problems.

How does COPD increase my risk for malnutrition?

You may have increased calorie needs because COPD causes your body to work harder to breathe. COPD also causes symptoms that can make it hard for you to eat enough healthy foods. Symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, chest discomfort, and fatigue. You may not have enough energy to shop or prepare meals. You may feel breathless while eating, have trouble swallowing, feel full quickly, or feel bloated.

How do I create a healthy eating plan?

A dietitian or other healthcare provider may help you create the plan. Tell him or her if you have another medical condition and need to follow a special diet. The following are part of a general healthy eating plan:

  • Vegetables can be fresh, canned in low-sodium (salt) water, or frozen. Eat a variety of dark green, red, and orange vegetables. Limit vegetables that cause gas or make you feel bloated. Low-sodium vegetable juice can also be part of your plan.
  • Fruits can be fresh, canned in 100% juice, frozen, or dried. Whole fruit juice can also be included.
  • Whole grains include whole-wheat bread, wheat pasta, brown rice, and oatmeal. At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains.
  • Protein foods can be fish, beef, pork, or turkey or chicken without skin. Other protein foods include eggs and egg substitutes, beans, peas, soy products (such as tofu), nuts, and seeds.
  • Dairy products include milk, yogurt, cheese, and cottage cheese.
  • Limit sodium (salt). Too much sodium may cause your body to retain (hold) water. This can make it harder to breathe. Use less table salt with meals. Limit foods that are high in sodium. Examples include snack or packaged foods, and cured or smoked meats, such as hot dogs and sausage. Frozen meals, canned vegetables, and condiments (mustard, soy sauce, and pickles) may also be high in sodium.

What are some tips I can follow during an exacerbation?

An exacerbation of COPD is when your symptoms get much worse very quickly. It may be even more difficult to get enough nutrients during an exacerbation. You may also lose weight during this time. Below are some tips that may help:

  • Eat small meals throughout the day. You may be able to eat more healthy foods if you eat 5 to 6 small meals instead of 3 large meals. This will prevent you from getting full too quickly. Feeling too full after meals can cause shortness of breath. Eat slowly and chew your food well.
  • Choose soft foods that are easy to chew. Examples include soups, scrambled eggs, pasta, pudding, cooked fruits and vegetables, yogurt, and fish.
  • Drink more liquid as directed. Liquid will help keep your mucus thin and easier to cough up. Mucus that stays in your lungs can make it harder to breathe when an exacerbation starts. Ask how much to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. Liquids with extra calories can help prevent weight loss during an exacerbation. Examples include milkshakes made with whole milk or with added protein powder.

What are some tips I can follow after an exacerbation?

You may need extra calories and nutrients if you lost weight during an exacerbation. Below are some tips that may help you regain weight:

  • Add extra protein to foods by adding cheese to soups, mashed potatoes, or omelets. Add milk powder, protein powder, or evaporated milk to cereals and desserts.
  • Add extra calories to foods by adding butter, margarine, sugar, or jam.

When should I call my doctor or dietitian?

  • You are losing weight without trying.
  • You have trouble swallowing.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare provider to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.