10 Tips for Eating When You Have Breathing Problems

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on December 02, 2022
2 min read

You probably never gave this a thought. But to eat, you need to breathe. Chewing and digesting food -- like anything else you do with your body -- use oxygen. That means you need to work harder to breathe in enough of it while you eat.

At the same time, the food in your stomach crowds your lungs and diaphragm, which makes their job harder. And conditions like COPD or asthma may make your lungs bigger, leaving less room in your chest.

Your breathing problems also may leave you too tired to eat. But it’s especially important to eat well, so you can stay strong and avoid illnesses and infections that can worsen your health.

Clear your lungs an hour before eating. You can do this in several ways, depending on your breathing condition. You can:

Rest before meals to save energy to eat.

Eat sitting up to make space for your lungs and diaphragm to expand for easier breathing.

Use your oxygen during meals. If you use a cannula, wear it while you eat to give your body the oxygen it needs for healthy digestion.

Don’t overeat. Give your lungs and diaphragm more room to do their job by not filling your stomach too much.

Eat smaller meals and more often. One way not to overeat in one sitting is to break three big meals into five or six smaller ones.

Match your meals to your energy level. If you get more tired later in the day, eat earlier. If you have something planned that will leave you spent, eat beforehand.

Stay away from gas-causing foods. Bloating will also lessen the space for your lungs. So avoid or limit:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Onions, leeks, shallots, and scallions
  • Garlic
  • Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts
  • Melons
  • Peas (like split and black-eyed)
  • Cucumbers
  • Root vegetables such as turnips, radishes, and rutabagas
  • Raw apples
  • Asparagus
  • Corn
  • Carbonated sodas and juices
  • Fried or greasy foods
  • Spicy foods

Cut back on drinks. If beverages fill you up, sip less during your meal. Or save liquids for afterward or for another time.

Eat and chew slowly. Take your time with your meal to take deep breaths to fill your body with the oxygen it needs. Take smaller bites and rest in between. If you feel out of breath, slow down and take a break.

Show Sources


COPD Foundation: “Short of Breath After Eating,” “Have Trouble Eating with COPD.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Nutritional Guidelines for People With COPD.”

American Lung Association: “Nutrition and COPD.”

National Jewish Health: “Eating With Asthma.”

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