COPD: Nutrition and Your Health

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on March 15, 2021
4 min read

Breathing is hard work if you have COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Your inflamed lungs and partially blocked airways make it a struggle to get air in and out. That effort to breathe burns a lot of calories -- way more than someone with healthy lungs, says Albert Rizzo, MD, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Christiana Care Health System.

As a result, you could lose too much weight. If you fall below a healthy weight, that makes it more likely that your immune system won’t work the way it should. That could set you up for more infections, Rizzo says.

Long-term inflammation, like the kind that comes with COPD, drains your energy, too. You may not feel like exercising, which makes it hard to stay healthy and fit. “If you don’t get enough calories, the extra work it takes to breathe can cause you to lose muscle mass and strength, Rizzo says.

To stay at a healthy weight, get the most calories and nutrition in each bite of food you have during the day, says Joan Salge Blake, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University.

“You want to get good, healthy calories and enough protein,” she says. “Make every bite as nutrient-rich as possible.”

Follow these simple tips to help you get more calories throughout your day so you keep your weight and energy levels healthy.

Eat more often. Frequent small meals may help you get more calories than you would by eating one or two big meals a day, Rizzo says. Large meals might make you feel too full, and that can make breathing even harder, he says.

You might not have the energy to cook a large meal, either. So opt for small dishes that are quick and easy to prepare.

Tip: Top a turkey pita sandwich with a slice of cheese and fresh avocado.

Mix in natural protein sources. Protein-rich foods like nuts and eggs help build muscle mass that you lose when you shed pounds, says Blake, a registered dietitian.

Tip: Toss a handful of almonds or walnuts into Greek yogurt for breakfast or as a snack. Make a batch of hard-boiled eggs on Sunday nights. Grab these to add to meals throughout the week, or as a quick snack.

Spread on extra fat. A toasted whole-grain English muffin is an easy breakfast or snack. Pile on toppings rich in protein and fats for a quick calorie boost, Blake says. Fats may help you breathe easier because they make less carbon dioxide, which you exhale as waste when you digest food.

Tip: Slather your bread with peanut butter, almond butter, or hummus. Add full-fat mayo or dressing to your lunchtime sandwich or pasta salad.

Whip up a smoothie. Buy or make your own yogurt and fruit smoothies for a sweet treat that’s rich in protein, vitamins, calcium, and calories, Blake says. They make great mid-afternoon or evening snacks.

Tip: Toss milk, ice, frozen berries, and plain Greek or regular yogurt into a blender and whip.

Chow on some carbs. Baked potatoes are a great base for adding more calories and nutrients. They’re easy to make in the microwave or oven.

Tip: Stuff a baked potato with cottage or ricotta cheese and steamed broccoli, or chopped avocado.

Reach for the fruit. It's rich in calories, fiber, and vitamins. Choose whatever’s in season for the best flavor. Grapes and bananas pack lots of calories and nutrients. Enjoy dried treats like raisins, plums, or peaches year-round. Dried fruit has less water, so you can get more punch per bite.

Tip: Mix raisins or dried cherries with nuts and put into plastic, resealable bags for easy snacks.

Choose classic comfort food. No dish is easier or cheaper to make than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Blake says. Peanut butter is a healthy way to add calories and protein to your diet. Whole milk or full-fat yogurt gives you calories, protein, and calcium.

Tip: Spread peanut butter on fresh apple slices or whole-grain crackers, and enjoy with a glass of milk.

Pump it up. Look for ways to add protein, fiber, and fat to a simple meal.

Tip: Make a quick stir-fry of sliced chicken and veggies in olive oil. Boost the protein and fiber with a scoop of canned, rinsed beans or whole-grain pasta twirls.

Bonus: Use supplements as needed. High-calorie supplement drinks are sweet and creamy. These quick and easy drinks are rich in protein and calcium, and they may help you keep your weight up, Rizzo says. Talk to your doctor or dietitian before you buy any supplement, drink, or bar. Some are really more like candy, with more sugar than nutrients, Blake says.