Healthy eating and your lungs


Food is the fuel your body needs for everything you do, including breathing. Your body uses food for energy as a part of a process called ‘metabolism’. This is when food and oxygen are changed into energy and carbon dioxide.

Eating healthily also helps the body fight infections. Chest infections are illnesses that can be dangerous for people with a lung problem. You can reduce your risk of infection by eating well.

Five essential nutrients

There are five nutrients that are essential for health and life.

1. Proteins

  • Found in milk, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, pulses
  • The body uses proteins to repair damaged tissue
  • Remember to trim the fat off meat – too much fat is not good for you

2. Carbohydrates

  • Found in bread, cereal, rice, pasta, fruit and potatoes
  • They are the easiest form of energy to digest
  • If they are high in fibre, they help with your bowel function and lower your cholestrol

3. Fats

  • Found in butter, margarine, olive oil, vegetable oil, nuts
  • They are mainly a source of energy and vitamins A D E and K

4. Minerals

  • Found in liver, eggs, meat, fish and dried fruits such as raisins
  • Milk and cheese are rich in calcium (and vitamin D)
  • Calcium and vitamin D help with healthy bones and teeth. Iron is important for your blood
  • Calcium is especially important for people who are on high amounts of steroid treatment

5. Vitamins

  • A – improves eyesight and helps fight infections – it’s found in butter and many dark green vegetables
  • B – necessary for normal nerve function, good digestion, good appetite and healthy skin – found in wholegrain breads and cereals, meat, fish and dairy products
  • C – good for fighting infection. The best sources are citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit), strawberries and broccoli
  • D – helps with healthy bones and teeth. Found in milk and cheese
  • E – found in whole grain cereals
  • K – regulates blood clotting – found in cauliflower, kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, soya beans, meat and green tea

Your ideal weight

If you are overweight, your heart and lungs have to work harder to supply oxygen to your body.

Too much fat makes it more difficult for your lungs to work properly. Losing weight through diet and exercise will make breathing easier.

If you are overweight, try eating smaller portions. Increase the amount of exercise you do to encourage weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week. Losing weight too quickly may not be good for you.

Being underweight is not good either. You can feel weak and tired, and you may be more likely to develop a chest infection. It’s important for you to eat enough calories to prevent muscle wasting or weakening.

Talk to your nurse or GP to find out your ideal weight.

Sugary foods

Sugar contains no nutrients. We do not need sugar for energy; we get all the energy we need from other foods we eat. Too much sugar in your diet makes obesity and tooth decay more likely.


  • Reduce snacking on sugary foods.
  • Try sweeteners instead of sugar in drinks.

And remember – eating too much fat can also lead to obesity.

Loss of appetite

If you feel unwell, if you’re producing lots of mucus, or if you’re breathless – you may lose your appetite.


  • Take your medicine with food unless advised otherwise. This prevents an upset tummy
  • Vary the colours and textures of your food
  • Use colourful garnishes to brighten food and make it more appealing
  • Take regular exercise
  • Take advantage of meals available at local community centres, clubs and churches
  • Try high-energy drinks – they take less energy to digest
  • Brush your teeth before meals

Loss of muscle tone

If you are unwell you may take less exercise. Your muscles may become weaker. Try to eat a well balanced diet.

  • Try to eat more high-protein foods – meat, fish, poultry and dairy products
  • Add grated cheese to vegetables, soups and casseroles
  • Use double-strength milk instead of water for cereals and milk puddings (double strength milk is one cup of whole milk with 1/3 cup of non-fat dry milk powder added)
  • Add hard-boiled eggs to tuna and chicken for sandwiches/salads
  • Add non-fat dried milk to casseroles, custards and puddings

Feeling bloated

Eating too much of some foods can make your stomach feel bloated. This makes it harder to breathe.

  • Try eating more small meals a day, rather than two or three big ones
  • Avoid gas-forming foods like sprouts, cabbage, beans, beer and sweets
  • Eat slowly and in a relaxed atmosphere, if you can

Keep drinking

It’s important to keep the secretions in your lungs thin and easy to cough up. If you don’t drink enough, your secretions will be thick and sticky and will increase your chances of an infection. Drinking enough liquids also helps with digesting food and avoiding constipation. Water is your best option.

  • Drink at least 2.5 litres of liquid a day (juices, milk shakes, water)
  • When you have an infection or fever or during the hot weather, drink more

Keep up your potassium

If you use water pills – which are sometimes used to lower blood pressure -you lose fluid and potassium. When your potassium is low you may feel weak, have tinglings or leg cramps.

  • Potassium is important for blood pressure control and muscles
  • Foods high in potassium are: bananas, raisins, tomatoes, dried apricots, sprouts, oranges, peanuts, potatoes and cooked beans

Watch out for salt

  • Most of us eat too much salt – you shouldn’t be eating be more than 6g per day
  • Too much salt may increase your blood pressure, which makes heart disease and strokes more likely
  • It’s the sodium in salt that causes the problem – 6g of salt contains 2.5g of sodium. That’s enough for one day
  • Avoid adding salt in cooking or at the table. Use herbs, spices and ground pepper for flavour instead
  • The majority of salt we eat is hidden within pre-cooked or pre-packed meals – check the list of ingredients for salt or sodium
  • Try no to eat too many salty snacks


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