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General Health

Asthma and Nutrition: What To Eat and What To Avoid

What you eat may have a connection to asthma and your airways. Learn which foods are asthma-friendly and which can aggravate your symptoms.

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If you have asthma, you’re not alone. Asthma is a serious condition that affects both children and adults – and it’s surprisingly widespread.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 13 people have asthma. However, if you’re living with asthma, it’s a manageable condition. There are steps you can take to better ease your symptoms and prevent asthma attacks.

While there’s no secret weapon to cure asthma, getting the right nutrients in your diet can reduce the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms. There isn’t conclusive evidence that a specific diet can prevent or decrease the severity of asthma attacks. However, expert-approved and research-backed foods can support lung function and help you breathe a little easier. “A healthy diet for people with asthma may lead to improved breathing and better overall health,” Kari Pitts, RD, a registered dietitian at Preg Appetit says.

Foods That Can Help Asthma

Diets rich in whole, plant-based foods may be particularly beneficial for individuals with asthma, according to research in the field. A 2015 study published in Lung found low rates of asthma among children who ate the Mediterranean diet for years compared to children who did not. “Although there is not a clear link between a plant-forward Mediterranean diet and asthma, findings indicate that antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables may minimize free radical cell damage and help reduce inflammation in the lungs,” Pitts says.

Even though there isn’t a recommended diet for this illness, here are are five foods you can try that may have a positive effect on asthma and its symptoms:

1. Salmon

Salmon is a type of fatty fish that’s popular for its high amount of omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are linked to a decrease in inflammation among individuals with asthma, according to a 2015 study published in Allergology International. Just 3 ounces of cooked, farmed Atlantic salmon contain 1.24 grams and 0.59 grams of DHA and EPA, respectively.

Salmon also contains about two-thirds of the daily value of vitamin D, a nutrient that reduces airway inflammation, the American Lung Association says. A 2016 study published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews found that asthmatic individuals who took a vitamin D supplement reduced their risk of severe asthma attacks and emergency room visits.

2. Tomato juice

Believe it or not, your Bloody Mary is asthma-friendly. This can be attributed to the fact that tomatoes contain lycopene, an antioxidant that helps to reduce inflammation caused by an allergic reaction. A 2016 study published in PLOS One examined the effect of tomato juice on neonatal mice with sensitive lungs. Researchers found that tomato juice not only decreased oxidative stress, but also allowed the mice to breathe easier by relaxing their airways.

Tomatoes may also delay lung function decline in adults, according to a 2017 study published in European Respiratory Journal that examined the lungs of ex-smokers over a span of 10 years.

3. Apples

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and that particularly holds true for individuals experiencing asthma. “Apples are rich in dietary fiber, which has a positive role on lung function,” Amanda Nicole, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist says. A 2021 study published in Food Science & Nutrition found that apple juice concentrate induced an anti-inflammatory environment in the lungs, leading to lower tissue damage. This is attributed to the antioxidants in the apple, which suppress the activity of free radicals by neutralizing them.

4. Bananas

Although research is limited in the field, bananas may be able to prevent wheezing, a common asthma symptom. A landmark study published in 2007 in European Respiratory Journal found that eating at least one banana a day was linked to little to no wheezing in young children.

Bananas are also high in dietary fiber; one banana contains around 3 to 4 grams. A 2017 study published in Nutrients found that dietary intake of soluble fiber has anti-inflammatory effects in asthmatic airways. If you’re not a huge fan of bananas, you may want to consider incorporating avocados, lentils, oats, nuts and seeds. These are all high-fiber foods.

5. Leafy greens

Leafy greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard and bok choy are some of the most nutritionally-dense foods. They’re rich in folate, calcium and fiber, just to name a few. In a 2015 study published in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, researchers found that children with folate and vitamin D deficiency saw an increased risk of developing asthma.

Leafy greens like mustard greens are also high in vitamin E. “Vitamin E is an antioxidant fighting off oxidative stress in the airway. Tocopherol, a compound in this vitamin, may decrease asthma symptoms like coughing or wheezing,” Nicole says. Additionally, beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, present in these foods can decrease inflammation and swelling in the lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Asthma-Triggering Foods

Considering how diet may influence your asthma, there are foods that can trigger your symptoms. For instance, a Western diet that’s high in processed meats, sugar, and refined grains can cause inflammation and worsen asthma symptoms, a 2017 review published in Nutrients suggests. These foods may have pro-inflammatory effects that may cause an adverse reaction, like wheezing or sudden inflammation in the airways.

Here are five foods and ingredients to steer clear of to avoid asthma flare ups:

1. Sulfites

Sulfites, a common preservative found in foods, can trigger asthma. This preservative has been found to cause a myriad of asthma symptoms ranging from mild wheezing to a potentially life-threatening asthmatic reaction, the Cleveland Clinic says. Research has found that red wine contains sulfites, which may cause allergy-like reactions.

Other foods high in sulfites include some pickled food, shrimp, maraschino cherries, bottled lemon juice and alcohol.

2. Foods that cause gas

Foods that cause gas or bloating can make breathing more difficult. Specifically, these foods can put too much pressure on your diaphragm, resulting in chest tightness. This is especially important for individuals who experience both asthma and acid reflux, the American Lung Association says. Both can be triggered by foods that cause gas and can worsen symptoms like coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain.

Stay away from or limit your intake of beans, carbonated drinks, onions, garlic and fried foods.

3. Salicylates

Salicylates are naturally occurring compounds found in coffee, tea and some herbs. A 2015 review published in Clinical and Translational Allergy suggests that individuals with asthma are sensitive to salicylates. While this is rare, salicylates can flare-up multiple asthma symptoms such as wheezing and difficulty breathing.

4. Artificial ingredients

In general, many of the chemical preservatives, flavorings and colorings in processed and synthetically-made foods aren’t ideal for asthma. These are very common in foods that have a long shelf-life, like bread, chips, cookies and candy.

Some additives that may cause asthma symptoms include benzoates, monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG) and Yellow 5, a food coloring found in many yellow snacks. Eat processed foods in moderation and try to stick to mostly whole foods to avoid these artificial ingredients.

5. Common allergens

Common food allergies can trigger asthmatic symptoms. A review published in 2020 in Nutrition Reviews found strong evidence that milk, a common dairy allergen, may worsen breathing in individuals with asthma, particularly children. The American Lung Association currently states that people with food allergies like dairy products, tree nuts, wheat or shellfish may have an increased risk of developing asthma.

Consult your healthcare provider about taking an allergy test to identify if you have any of these common allergens. Then, you’ll know what kinds of changes may be best for your diet.

Learn more about foods that may have benefits for asthma symptoms in these in articles:

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