Why Food Matters
A healthy, well-balanced diet goes a long way to keep your body strong, including your lungs. In general, aim for a variety of foods from each food group to keep your lungs happy. (Hint: More plants and fewer processed foods are better for just about everyone.) To keep your lungs in tiptop shape, here are some examples of foods to enjoy and avoid or limit — along with not smoking and other lung-friendly habits.
Good: High-Fiber Foods
What do raspberries, peas, lentils, and black beans have in common? They’re all high in fiber, which is great for your lungs. Research suggests people who eat more fiber have lungs that work better than those who don’t eat much fiber. Other fiber-rich foods include whole-wheat spaghetti, baked beans, chia seeds, quinoa, pears, and broccoli.
Bad: Processed Meats
Studies show a link between processed, or cured, meats and worse lung function. Researchers think the nitrites used in processing and preserving cured meats may cause inflammation and stress to the lungs. Bacon, ham, deli meat, and sausage all fall into the category of processed meats.
Good news for coffee lovers: Your morning cup could be doing your lungs a favor. Research points to a connection between regular coffee and healthier lungs. This could be due to the caffeine, which is anti-inflammatory, and polyphenols, which are antioxidant and also anti-inflammatory.
Bad: Too Much Alcohol
Heavy drinking is bad for your liver and for your lungs. Sulfites in alcohol can worsen asthma symptoms, and ethanol affects your lung cells. If you drink too much, you’re more likely to get pneumonia and other lung problems. But a little bit is OK. Two drinks or less per day, especially if it’s wine, may be good for your lung health. Health experts don’t recommend anyone start drinking, though — and if you do drink, keep it moderate.
Good: Whole Grains
Whole grains are great for your lungs. They include brown rice, whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat pasta, oats, quinoa, and barley. Not only are whole-grain foods high in fiber, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory qualities, but they’re full of vitamin E, selenium, and essential fatty acids, which are good for lung health. Refined grains, like white flour and white rice, lose many of their nutrients in the milling process.
Bad: Sugary Drinks
Do your lungs a favor and swap out soft drinks for water. A study found adults who drank more than five sweetened soft drinks a week were more likely to have ongoing bronchitis, and kids were more likely to have asthma. It’s not clear that the sodas were the reason why, but the pattern stood out. If you smoke, even unsweetened soft drinks can be bad for your lungs.
Red and blue fruits like blueberries and strawberries are rich in a flavonoid called anthocyanin, which gives them their color and is also a strong antioxidant. Research suggests this pigment can slow down your lungs’ natural decline as you age. In one study, older men who ate at least two servings of blueberries a week had notably less decline in lung function than those who ate fewer or no blueberries.
Bad: Too Much Salt
A little adds flavor, but a lot adds to your odds for lung problems. People who eat a lot of salt are more likely to have long-term bronchitis. And a high-sodium diet can worsen asthma symptoms, but you may be able to help your lungs work better if you go light on salt for a couple of weeks. Cook from scratch, and avoid restaurants and packaged foods. Read labels, and ask your doctor how much is too much. Limits are usually 1,500 to 2,300 mg per day.
Good: Leafy Green Vegetables
Load your plate with spinach, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens, and you could lower your chance of getting lung cancer. One study found that Chinese greens are particularly good for this purpose. This could be because they are high in carotenoids, which are antioxidant.
Good: Dairy Products
Research suggests drinking milk and eating cheese, yogurt, and other dairy products can lower your chances of dying from lung cancer. Unless you’re allergic to it, dairy is tied to anti-inflammatory properties. On the flip side, if you have asthma or another lung problem, going dairy-free may help cut down on your mucus production.
Tomatoes are the richest source of lycopene, which is linked to lung health. Eating tomatoes and tomato products like tomato juice can improve airway inflammation if you have asthma and may lower your chance of death if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Lycopene is also tied to less decline in lung function for young adults. These benefits are even more pronounced for people who used to smoke.