Understanding Nutrition and COPD

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I know this is not an article about pediatric populations but it is a topic that is dear to my heart when my own father was officially diagnosed with COPD. I’ve suspected that earlier last year but he wouldn’t let me take him to the doctor until he was critically ill this time around. You, maybe just like me have a loved one who suffers from COPD and wondering how you can help.

I worked with adult populations before and know how much nutrition is important for COPD patients. Most COPD patients who are admitted to the hospital are malnourished and it increases their mortality rate. Nutrition really plays an important role in keeping a person with COPD healthy and to help them recover from malnutrition and improving their chances of survival. A person with COPD exacerbation can be malnourished in 1 month but it will take almost a year to totally recovered from it if they do what the doctors, physical therapist, respiratory therapist and registered dietitian say. It takes a team effort to manage this disease.

What is COPD exactly ? 

According to American Lung Association, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that over time makes it hard to breathe.With COPD, the airways in your lungs become inflamed and thicken, and the tissue where oxygen is exchanged is destroyed. The flow of air in and out of your lungs decreases. When that happens, less oxygen gets into your body tissues, and it becomes harder to get rid of the waste gas carbon dioxide.

COPD is most common with adults over 50, men and women can both get COPD especially if they are a smoker. People who works closely with fumes, chemical and pollutant will contract COPD as well.

COPD foundation website has a wealth of information regarding the details of the disease.

And why is nutrition important ?

COPD patient often have shortness of breathe or dyspnea in the medical world and it takes them twice as much effort to breathe in oxygen. The patient themselves might not realized the increase work of breathing especially during the early stages of COPD.  Increased work of breathing translate to increased energy expenditure. Depending on the severity, you can easily burnt additional 400-700 calories daily. So even if you felt that you are eating adequately, but you will start noticing weight loss and when exacerbation happens, it will spiral down very quickly.

So, if a person did not consume adequate calories. The body will start utilizing muscle and fat stores for energy, therefore weight loss occurs and then slowly leading to a malnourished state.  With the loss of lean muscle mass, a person will get weaker, and the more breathless they become and the harder it becomes for them to eat. This is because it is hard for them to catch their breath and eat at the same time.  The less they eat, the weaker they become, the harder it is for them to maintain a good weight, which is a vital key to managing COPD.

What can you do nutritionally if you have COPD?

  • Eat small frequent meals. Ideally 6-8 meals per day averaging 300-350 calories per meal to help you regain the severe weight loss you have experienced.
  • If eating solids are difficult, try to look into high calories/ high protein supplement drink (Ensure, Boost, Orgain Or Vega ( Both Vegan option), Muscle Milk, etc.
  • Eat more when you have the most energy, usually in the morning.
  • Choose higher fat foods because it gives you the most calories with the least volume. Plus, fat produces less carbon dioxide when digested, so it is better for the COPD patients.
  • Aim to have 35-40% calories from fat, 35-40% calories from Carbohydrates and 20-25% of calories from protein.
  • Consume high antioxidants fruits and vegetables. It can help improve some pulmonary functions. If not a big fan of fruits/veggies – you can try juicing or buy antioxidant powder drink. or take a MVI daily.
  • Chew and eat slowly to avoid swallowing too much air.
  • Avoid food that produces too much gas (cabbage family, onions, broccoli, cauliflower beans) as bloating can make eating uncomfortable.
  • Limit salt if you can. Swelling/Edema or water retention in body can make breathing difficult.

What other options if eating becomes increasingly difficult?’

  • Tube feeding usually is our recommendation to help a patient combat malnutrition associated with COPD. If the prognosis with the lung disease is not terminal, there is still a chance to improve mortality rate with good nutrition through tube feeding if you or your loved one desired.

Always remember, food is just as important as medication !