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What foods should be avoided with COPD?

Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD. Last updated on Dec 13, 2021.

Official answer


In some people, certain foods may worsen symptoms of COPD. These include:

  • fried foods
  • carbonated beverages
  • excessively salty food or too much added salt
  • some dairy products
  • cruciferous vegetables (for example: kale, broccoli, cabbage)
  • preserved meats and cold cuts

Symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) include shortness of breath, cough, and sputum (mucous) production.

  • It’s important to note if you are having trouble breathing, you may be having a COPD flare up, so contact your healthcare provider. Your COPD medications may need adjusting or you may need added treatments. Your symptoms may not necessarily be due to your diet.
  • Although diet changes may be helpful in patients with COPD, the key measures for COPD treatment and prevention include smoking cessation, medication treatment and lung rehabilitation.
  • Nutrition is an important part of staying healthy, so always check with your healthcare provider about how to adjust your diet to ease any COPD-based symptoms and improve your quality of life. Meeting with a registered dietician may be beneficial.

Weight loss, malnutrition and muscle wasting has been shown to occur in patients with more advanced COPD, which can worsen outcomes. More studies are needed to confirm how well diet can positively affect COPD and what mechanisms are involved.

Foods that may worsen COPD symptoms:

  • Fried foods: Fat breakdown in the digestive system can take longer and may lead to bloating in the stomach and gas in the digestive system. Bloating can make it difficult to take full breaths and lead to pain in the diaphragm.
  • Carbonated or aerated beverages: The pressure in the middle abdomen area can affect how easy it is for someone with COPD to breath. Drinks that have been aerated with carbon dioxide can aggravate this pressure and cause pain. In addition, sodas and other carbonated drinks may contain unhealthy preservatives, colors or artificial sweeteners.
  • Excess salt: As heart patients know, too much salt can lead to fluid retention (edema); the same is true in COPD. This extra fluid can put pressure on the diaphragm and may make it difficult to breathe. Use substitutes that you can tolerate, like lemon or lime juice, herbs, spices to make up for missed flavor from cutting back on salt.
  • Preserved meats: Nitrates and nitrites found in preserved foods are not a healthy choice for anyone. This includes bacon, deli meats, cold cuts, ham, hot dogs, and sausages. Many preservative-free options are available today which may be a better choice. You can look for sodium nitrate on package labeling. These agents have been linked with stomach cancer. In addition, a recent study has found a link between COPD and processed red meat consumption, with a 40% increased risk when intake exceeded 75 grams per week. Nitrites are also a byproduct of tobacco smoke.
  • Dairy: Dairy products like milk and cheese have been reported to lead to extra phlegm and mucus production in COPD patients, which can aggravate coughing. However, it is important to get adequate calcium and vitamin D, which can be found in milk, so check with your doctor before you eliminate dairy. Other dairy products that may cause symptoms include ice cream, yogurt, butter, and buttermilk. Alternatives like soy milk or other plant-based milks (almond milk, oat milk).
  • Cruciferous vegetables: Cruciferous vegetables include kale, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, arugula, brussel sprouts, collards, watercress and radishes. Many diets recommend these vegetables due to their high fiber content that helps you feel full. But they can also lead to gas and heartburn, and in some patients with COPD this can cause pain with breathing.
  • Alcohol consumption: Heavy alcohol intake has been shown to have negative effects on lung function. However, other studies have found a positive effect of wine (1-30 grams per day) on lung function, when combined with other nutrients like whole grains (>45 grams per day) and fruits (>180 grams per day). You may still be able to enjoy a cocktail or glass of wine occasionally, but check with your doctor for advice on alcohol consumption. ​​

What should I eat if I have COPD?

A healthy diet is one that includes a variety of fresh foods and whole grain bread and pasta, fresh fruits and vegetables, and low-saturated fat protein options.

If you are having difficulty finding foods that do not lead to bloating or gas, or are losing weight, consult with a registered dietician and your doctor to discuss dietary options.

  • Complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates: This means whole grains (for example: whole wheat bread over white bread), and whole grain pastas. White bread and pasta contain a greater amount of sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate. Try to eliminate simple sugar from your diet where you can.
  • Eat foods with fiber: It is recommended to consume 20 to 30 grams of fiber each day. In addition to whole grains, you can get fiber from nuts, seeds, fruits (pears, apples) and vegetables (carrots, artichokes).
  • Choose healthy proteins: Choices include eggs, milk, lean cuts of meat (skinless poultry, fish like salmon) and nuts and dried beans or peas.
  • Select healthy fats: Choose mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Saturated fats are found in butter, lard, full-fat milk and yogurt, full-fat cheese, and high-fat and red meat. Olive oil, canola oil, low fat or skim milk, and low fat cheese may be better options.

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