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Managing COPD: Proper Nutrition Can Help

Good nutrition and weight control are important in managing your disease if you have COPD. Learn about what strategies can help the most.

woman in kitchen preparing a salad

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), good nutrition may help you manage your disease and help ward off complications. Keeping a healthy weight and getting enough of the right nutrients also may help ease your breathing and protect against infection.

The role of body weight

Excess body weight in someone with COPD increases the workload on the heart and lungs. Being overweight increases the chance that you could have an inactive lifestyle. Inactivity can have a negative effect on your health. A healthy diet combined with exercise can help you lower your body fat and increase your muscle tissue. This can ease breathing and enhance energy. Always check with your doctor before you start an exercise program or increase your activity level.

Others with severe COPD may have the opposite problem of unintended weight loss. The causes are unclear, but it may be because the increased work of breathing causes your energy needs to rise. At times, you might have to choose between taking a gasp of air or a bite of food. As a result, you may not take in enough calories to meet your needs. This can increase your risk for malnutrition and muscle wasting — including the muscles you use to breathe. If you are losing weight, talk to your doctor.

Nutrition benefits

A healthy diet can play a role in managing weight, protecting immunity and easing breathing. Such a diet includes the right amounts of fluids, wholesome carbohydrates, protein, calcium and potassium. If you find it hard to meet your nutritional needs with regular foods, ask your doctor or dietitian to recommend a liquid nutritional supplement.

  • Fluids. Proper fluid balance is important. Drinking enough healthy fluids can help hydrate your body and thin out respiratory mucus, unless your doctor has restricted your fluid intake. Proper fluid intake also helps prevent the drying of mucus membranes, which is especially important if you are on oxygen therapy.
  • Protein. Your body needs enough protein to repair and build cells, and to prevent muscle wasting.
    • Lean meats, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, eggs and low-fat dairy are all good sources of protein.
    • Grains, nuts and vegetables also have some protein.
  • Wholesome carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the body and the only nutrient with fiber.
    • Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables are loaded with important vitamins and minerals.
    • Sugary, processed carbohydrates contain empty calories, so limit your intake.
  • Calcium. Calcium is important for strong bones. If you use a steroid (especially an oral steroid) to manage your COPD, you may be at risk for thinning bones.
    • Dairy products have the highest concentration of absorbable calcium.
    • Dark, leafy greens and dried beans have varying amounts of absorbable calcium.
    • Supplements may be useful if you do not get enough calcium from food. Ask your doctor if these are right for you.
  • Potassium. Potassium is critical for the operation of all cells in your body, including your heart and muscles.
    • It's found in fruits, vegetables, dairy products and meat. Your doctor may recommend a supplement depending on your lab tests, especially if you take certain medications like water pills.

More healthy tips

The following steps may also be helpful:

  • Eat a few small meals every day, instead of eating a couple larger ones. This will help prevent your stomach from becoming too full from a larger meal.
  • Limit sodium intake. Too much salt may cause edema (swelling). It can also raise your blood pressure. Your doctor will tell you how much sodium you should eat each day.
  • Avoid foods that cause gas or bloating. This can also make breathing more difficult.
  • Keep healthy fluids readily available. Water is a good choice. Fluids are important, so make sure you have easy access.
  • Limit fluids with meals. This is especially important if drinking fluids with meals makes you full. Try drinking an hour after you eat.

Take the time to be healthy — eat right, get regular exercise and breathe easier!

By Jane Schwartz Harrison, RD, Contributing Writer

Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease. Global strategy for the diagnosis, management, and prevention of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease updated 2016. Accessed: January 11, 2016.
American Lung Association. Nutrition. Accessed: January 11, 2016.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. How is COPD treated? Accessed: January 11, 2016.

Last Updated: January 11, 2016