While no specific food can spur or prevent an asthma attack (unless you are among the 5 percent of asthmatics who also have food allergies), your diet is important as a means of controlling two other conditions that contribute to and worsen asthma: obesity and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
Blame It on the Belly Fat
Being overweight is more than a cosmetic problem — especially if you have asthma. In addition to making you more prone to heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer, those extra pounds specifically make asthma both more severe and harder to treat.
- Severely overweight asthma patients are five times more likely to be hospitalized than asthma sufferers who maintain a healthy weight.
- Leaner people respond better to inhaled corticosteroids, one of the most common forms of asthma medication, than those who are overweight.
Researchers are more certain of the cure (lose the extra weight) than the cause, but theories center around the fat in the center cavity of your body. Visceral fat — the stuff that gathers around your intestines — produces hormones such as leptin that may encourage the lining of your lungs to become inflamed (these hormones also contribute to inflammation in the rest of your body, upping the risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers).
Give Yourself Room to Breathe
The good news: Research shows that losing weight can improve your condition. Additionally, reaching and maintaining a healthy weight reduces your chances of diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. Here, some ways to start eating to breathe easier:
- Eat three small meals a day and three snacks. Contrary to what you might think, going hungry doesn’t help with weight loss. Intersperse small, healthy meals with snacks of 100 to 150 calories, such as an apple or a banana with a tablespoon of almond butter.
- Watch portion size. It may be that your expanding waistline is due to expanding portions. Servings of common packaged and prepared foods have more than doubled in the last century. When it comes to your plate, though, control is in your hands — literally. Make your lean protein serving about the size of your palm. A serving of whole grains, such as brown rice (cooked, of course!), is about as much as fits into a rounded handful. A serving of vegetables or fruit is about the size of your fist. Follow those rules of thumb for each meal and you’ll be giving yourself a real helping hand in controlling your weight.
- Fill up on fruits and vegetables. Eat up to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day. Not only does this keep you full, helping stave off cravings for rich, sweet food, but it ensures that you are eating a balanced diet full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Guard against GERD
As if having asthma put a vise grip on your breathing weren’t bad enough, GERD — gastroesophageal reflux disease — shows up frequently alongside asthma: Between one-third and two-thirds of all adults with asthma also have GERD. Caused by the weakening of muscles in your lower esophagus — think of broken floodgates that allow the tide to seep in — stomach acids and partially digested food wash up from your stomach into your esophagus, causing a burning sensation.
The two conditions have a symbiotic relationship: The wheezing and coughing of asthma pushes food into your esophagus, leading to GERD. At the same time, the acid in your esophagus can injure your throat, leading to difficulty breathing and a chronic cough. Even if you’re not experiencing symptoms, bring up the possibility with your physician — some people experience GERD without any noticeable symptoms (so-called silent GERD).
Here are some ways to calm your stomach to ease your breathing:
- Make it mild. Your stomach produces the most acid when you eat spicy, fatty or acidic foods, such as three-alarm wings, ice cream or orange juice. Instead, turn to lean meat, seafood, fat-free cheeses, whole grains, beans and fruits and vegetables.
- Pass up coffee, alcohol and candy. People who suspect they have GERD should avoid acid-stimulating coffee and alcohol, as well as hard candies and gum. Sucking on candy and chewing gum makes you swallow air, putting a rumble into your stomach.
- Downsize your dinner. Large meals take longer to digest, and filling your stomach to capacity makes it more likely that acids and food will push up into your esophagus. So eat lightly and snack often, allowing plenty of time for your food to digest — especially in the evening. Lying down with a full stomach makes it easier for acids to back up into your esophagus.
- Kick the habit. As if having asthma isn’t enough reason to quit smoking, nicotine relaxes your lower esophageal muscles, making it more likely your food will come up.