A Mediterranean-style diet fights inflammation.
Inflammation fuels many types of chronic lung conditions, such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. So when it comes to diet, you want to eat foods that are good for your lungs and promote healing, not chronic inflammation. "There is solid epidemiologic data that indicates better lung function in people who eat a better diet," says Dr. Brian Christman, a pulmonologist and professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
To get started, begin switching gradually to a diet known for its anti-inflammatory properties. "The adoption of a healthier, Mediterranean-type diet that is lower in saturated fats, higher in fish and whole grains, with lots of fruits and vegetables is likely the best approach," Christman says. Make sure the following foods and drinks are on the menu.
The old saying about an apple a day keeping the doctor away doesn't specifically mention the role of plant chemicals called phytonutrients. But some research indicates that a type of phytonutrient called quercetin may give the apple some of its healing powers. Quercetin is also found in high concentrations in onions, tea and red wine. In a study of former smokers, researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that the apple was an especially good food for healing the lungs, as a diet rich in apples and other fruits appeared to reduce lung function decline.
Beets are foods considered good for the lungs for a variety of reasons. The red, yellow and orange vegetables deliver a powerful anti-inflammatory punch, and they contain many lung-healthy nutrients. "Beets are rich in nitrates that help to relax blood vessels and optimize oxygen uptake in pulmonary blood vessels," says Dr. Nazir Lone, a pulmonologist with Peconic Bay Medical Center in New York. "Beets also are packed with minerals like magnesium and (phytonutrients called) carotenoids that have antioxidant properties." Antioxidants are plant compounds associated with protecting the body from free radicals -- molecules that can harm healthy cells, including those in the lungs.
If you're not a fan of beets in your salad bowl or on your plate, you can get those same nitrates and antioxidants in beet juice.
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of green tea -- including possible cardiovascular effects -- are associated with a reduced risk for developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Drinking two or more cups of green tea per day appears to provide the benefit. "Most of the foods that are said to benefit lung health provide antioxidants or have anti-inflammatory properties," Christman says.
Limited evidence suggests that green tea phytonutrients called catechins are associated with reduced lung tissue inflammation. Green tea has also been investigated for its potential role in warding off lung cancer. The results have been promising, but they are inconclusive.
Leafy green vegetables
Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale are also foods good for lungs. Leafy greens are some of the best sources of carotenoids; vitamins A, C, E and K; and iron, potassium and calcium. "Vitamin C present in green vegetables has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-asthmatic effects," Lone says. "Vitamin C and vitamin E also work synergistically and help to alleviate lung inflammation." Other dark, green leafy vegetables include broccoli, bok choy and mustard greens. Add them raw to salads, smoothies and sandwiches for a nice crunch. Or sauté them and use them as a side dish at dinner or mixed into a bowl of soup.
To get enough protein in your diet, think fish and poultry, not red meat and its high levels of saturated fat. And don't forget beans and lentils, which are also excellent sources of iron and zinc, making them great foods for healing the lungs. Teresa Baczkowski, a registered dietitian and manager of clinical nutrition at Adventist Health White Memorial in Los Angeles, notes that protein and certain minerals promote healthy red blood cell production, which is vital for lung function. That's because red blood cells play a key role in the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the lungs. "Adequate protein for tissue replacement and the building of red blood cells -- and adequate iron, copper and zinc to assist in red blood cell building -- are very important," she says.
This breakfast staple may benefit lung health in several ways. As an excellent source of the mighty antioxidant vitamin C, orange juice helps protect the lungs from free radicals that could cause disease or infection. "The human body does not produce vitamin C and that must be supplemented," Lone says. Research also suggests that phytonutrients in orange juice called flavonoids (such as beta-carotene and lutein) team up with vitamin C to protect cells in the lungs and airways from oxidative stress. But be careful: Many orange juice products are high in calories and added sugars, so try to find products with as few added ingredients as possible.
You may have felt your sinuses clear up after a bite of especially spicy food, but peppers may provide even greater assistance for your airways. Chili peppers pack plenty of respiratory benefits, including high concentrations of the antioxidant vitamin C and the phytonutrient capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers that give them a stinging bite. A study of more than 400,000 adults found a strong association between a diet rich in spicy foods, including peppers, and lower death risks related to respiratory diseases, cancer and heart disease. Additional research suggests that capsaicin appears to help slow the spread of small-cell lung cancer in lab animals.
Foods good for lungs include many items rich in carotenoids, which give certain vegetables and fruits their rich red, yellow and orange colors. More importantly, carotenoids pack a lot of anti-inflammatory and immune-strengthening benefits. The Linus Pauling Institute reports that canned pumpkin is among the best sources of the carotenoids alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. A small study of older adults found that healthy levels of alpha-carotene and beta-carotene in the body were associated with greater lung function. And in a study of more than 15,000 adults, intake of alpha-carotene was linked with better lung function, longevity and a decreased risk of chronic lower respiratory disease.
Tomatoes are foods that are good for your lungs because they are among the best sources of the phytonutrient lycopene -- the compound that gives these garden delights their bright red shine. Though more research is needed, studies have found an association between lycopene (and other tomato carotenoids) and protection against lung cancer. The anti-inflammatory benefits of lycopene from tomatoes may also play a role in easing symptoms of asthma, a condition in which the airways narrow and produce unhealthy levels of mucus. Lycopene is also associated with better cardiovascular health. As with many nutrients, lycopene is best consumed from food sources rather than as a supplement. Other foods rich in lycopene include watermelon, pink grapefruit and guava.
Whole grains are known primarily for the digestive and heart-health benefits of fiber, but they are also foods that are good for your lungs because they contain protein, antioxidants and minerals such as iron, zinc, copper and magnesium. But wait -- there's more, says Georgia-based registered dietitian Trista Best, who recommends you get your carbohydrates from whole grains instead of foods that are high in simple carbohydrates, such as refined flour and soft drinks. "Excess carbon dioxide produced by the body can cause difficulty breathing in those who have existing lung conditions," Best explains. "A diet low in carbohydrates will reduce carbon dioxide and make breathing easier for these individuals. Incorporating complex carbohydrates like lentils, oats, bran and quinoa can prove beneficial for this population."
The best foods for lung health:
-- Green tea.
-- Leafy greens.
-- Lean protein.
-- Orange juice.
-- Whole grains.
Heidi Godman reports on health for U.S. News, with a focus on middle and older age. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications, including the Harvard Health Letter (where she serves as executive editor), the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and Cleveland Clinic Heart Advisor.
Heidi spent more than 20 years as a TV news anchor and health reporter at ABC affiliate WWSB and more than five years as the host of a daily health talk radio show on WSRQ-FM. Heidi has interviewed surgeons in operating rooms, scientists in laboratories and patients in all phases of treatment. She's earned numerous awards for outstanding health reporting and was the first TV broadcaster in the nation to be named a journalism fellow of the American Academy of Neurology. Heidi graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in journalism.
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