Emphysema and Nutrition

Can certain foods affect your emphysema symptoms? This article will help you to answer this question by covering the following:

  • What is emphysema?
  • Why is nutrition important?
  • What foods are good and bad for emphysema?

What is emphysema?

Emphysema is a chronic lung condition and a type of COPD. It is caused by the progressive loss of air sacs, or ‘alveoli’, in the lungs over many years. This condition causes shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.1

It is not known exactly what causes emphysema, but one of the biggest risk factors for developing emphysema is smoking. Emphysema gets worse over time and is, unfortunately, incurable. However, there are plenty of ways to manage COPD and slow down the progression of the disease. These methods include:1,2

  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercise
  • Vaccinations
  • The use of breathing techniques
  • Losing weight if you are overweight
  • Avoiding exposure to allergens, dust, and pollutants
  • Medications - including bronchodilators, inhaled steroids, and sometimes antibiotics

To find out more about emphysema, here is a useful emphysema FAQ.


The most common symptom of emphysema is shortness of breath. Other symptoms may include:2

  • Chest tightness or wheezing
  • A cough that won’t go away, usually accompanied by phlegm
  • Increased fatigue
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Blue fingertips or lips

If you believe you have symptoms of emphysema or COPD, then please visit your GP or speak to a healthcare professional.

Why is a balanced diet important?

Ensuring you are getting the right amount of nutrients in your diet can help you to fight off infection, keep healthy and breathe easier

Food is essential for providing your body with energy. When you eat food, your body breaks it down using oxygen in a process called metabolism, and the energy obtained from this process is used to fuel other processes throughout the body. CO2 is released as a by-product of this, and is exhaled out of the lungs. However, because certain foods are hard to break down, they produce more CO2, which can make it difficult to breathe - particularly for those with emphysema.3 A nutritionist can help you to devise a meal plan that is right for you.

Which foods help with emphysema?

Protein-rich foods

The respiratory muscles are vital for breathing and require lots of energy. For individuals with emphysema and COPD, these muscles have to work harder to keep you breathing and so demand more energy. 

For this reason it is advised for people living with emphysema and COPD to increase their consumption of protein to keep their respiratory muscles strong and working effectively.3

Complex carbohydrates

Although carbohydrates produce a lot of CO2 during metabolism, and therefore can be troublesome to those with emphysema, they are a key source of energy. Complex carbohydrates offer a slower release of energy, are more nutritionally complete, and are more satiating. For these reasons, they are preferable to simple carbohydrates, especially those with emphysema.  

Foods to avoid with emphysema

It may be surprising that some foods can make the symptoms of your emphysema worse. This section of the article covers what foods are bad for emphysema, and some extra tips to help manage your symptoms.

Excess sodium 

Excessive intake of salt can increase water retention and lead to swelling, or ‘oedema’.4 This is particularly common with COPD as the lungs have a reduced ability to process liquids in the blood. Thus, it is important for people with COPD to be mindful of their salt intake to avoid this.

Excessive sodium can also increase blood pressure which may cause shortness of breath. Find out more about this here.

Excess milk products

Excessive phlegm is a problem in COPD. Dairy products can further increase the production of phlegm, which in turn can irritate the throat and lead to excess coughing. 

Foods that can cause bloating

Certain foods and drinks can induce bloating caused by a build up of gas, and this can make breathing more difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable. To prevent this, limit the intake of foods that increase bloating.3,4 These include:

  • Fizzy drinks
  • Caffeinated drinks
  • Dairy products
  • Wheat

Some fruits and vegetables can also cause bloating, as they contain fermentable carbohydrates.4 These include:4

  • Beans and lentils
  • Cabbage, kale, and broccoli
  • Onion and garlic
  • Legumes
  • Apricots 
  • Watermelon
  • Apples

Other ways to prevent bloating include:3,4,5

  • Chew with your mouth closed to limit how much air you swallow
  • Try to eat slowly
  • Avoid eating big meals before you go to sleep
  • Limit your intake of spicy and processed foods

Other diet tips to help with your symptoms

Eat smaller meals, more often

As you breathe in, your lungs fill with air and expand. Eating too much during a meal can put pressure on your diaphragm and make it more difficult to for your lungs to expand, preventing you breathing freely.3

Rest before eating

It can be more difficult to eat when you feel tired and lethargic. Before you eat meals, relax and rest your breathing to make it easier to eat your meal.

Keep hydrated

Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids throughout the day. This is essential, as keeping your mucus as thin as possible to keep your airways clear increases ease of breathing.3


Emphysema is a form of COPD and despite being uncurable, there are many methods to help improve your health and wellbeing. As with every disease, optimising your diet can help to keep your body fit and healthy - both physically and mentally. Good nutrition can be a powerful tool for managing the symptoms of emphysema, and can increase your resistance to infection. It may be helpful to increase your consumption of protein-rich foods for strong respiratory muscles, as well as lots of fresh fruits and vegetables with plenty of fibre to keep yourself strong and healthy. It may also be helpful to avoid eating excessive amounts of carbohydrates, and processed, salty foods that may worsen the symptoms. If you need support for your COPD, then please visit the COPD Foundation.


  1. NHS. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) [Internet]; 2019.
  2. John Hopkins Medicine. Pulmonary Emphysema [Internet]; undated.
  3. American Lung Association. Nutrition and COPD [Internet]; 2021.
  4. Cornerstone Urgent Care Center. COPD diet: foods to avoid [Internet]; 2020.
  5. NHS. Bloating [Internet]; 2022.
  6. Best and Worst Foods for Bloating. Health [Internet].

Laura Preece

BSc Pharmaceutical Sciences and MRes Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences
I am a researcher and medical writer with a passion for pharmaceutics, disease and biological sciences. I am currently researching cellular and molecular biology, investigating the use of vitamin C as an adjunctive therapy for diabetes mellitus.

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