When it comes to your health, what you put into your body goes a long way. That's no different for your lungs. If you’re concerned about warding off lung cancer, repairing any damage that you may have done over the years with smoking, or managing an existing lung condition, such as COPD or asthma, listen up.
While you should always consult a doctor if you're concerned about anything regarding your lungs, there are specific foods that you can eat that have been scientifically proven to be able to make a difference in the health of your lungs. Here are the best foods that are good for your lungs that experts recommend, plus tips on what to avoid. Get ready to stock up and chow down in the name of your lung health!
Best Foods for Healthy Lungs
“Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties and reduces damage caused by free radicals,” say Adil Akhtar, MD, an oncologist and palliative care expert in Detroit. He adds that studies suggest that raw garlic consumption may also play a role in reducing the risk of developing lung cancer, thus making it a great food for healthier lungs.
“For optimal lung health make sure to drink plenty of water, as your lungs utilize water to keep your airways clean and clear of mucous and inflammatory build-up,” explains Dr. Fani Marvasti, MD, the director of the Public Health, Prevention & Health Promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix. “In my practice, the importance of drinking enough fluids can’t be stressed enough in terms of maintaining lung health. Lungs are 80% water, and even mild dehydration can impact lung function significantly,” adds Amanda Maucere, RD, Lung Health Institute.
According to the American Lung Association, people who suffer from COPD may benefit from reducing carbohydrates in their diets and instead ingesting more healthy fats. “Carbohydrates produce the most carbon dioxide as part of their digestion compared to fats,” adds Marvasti. He recommends sticking to healthy carbs that are “loaded with fiber and more anti-inflammatory” like sprouted whole grain bread or steel-cut oatmeal and avoiding simple carbs in all processed foods or pastries, white bread, and those in sugary beverages.
“Fats have the lowest carbon dioxide load during metabolism,” says Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living. Thus she explains that for someone who already has difficulty breathing, may notice better breathing on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet. “To get more healthy fats, include one serving of nuts daily. Try walnuts, which are the richest plant source of omega-3 fats, eat fatty fish—salmon, sardines, anchovies—at least two to three times per week, and sprinkle ground flaxseeds on cereals and salads,” suggests Suzanne Dixon, a registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida.
Apples and tomatoes
According to Akhtar, apples and tomatoes can help slow the natural decline in lung functions. And studies suggest that these two foods may play a role in helping to repair the lungs of ex-smokers, making them two standout foods good for lungs and breathing. “Apples and tomatoes contain high levels of antioxidants, which may be important in protecting the lungs from the harmful effects of atmospheric pollutants and cigarette smoke,” Akhtar adds.
Vitamin D-rich foods
Vitamin D can boost the immune system and reduce airway inflammation, Akhtar explains. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased childhood asthma and vitamin D supplements have been shown to help reduce asthma attacks. Other studies suggest a possible correlation between reduced vitamin D levels and lung disease. Dietary sources of vitamin D include fortified milk, eggs, yogurt and salmon—ensuring more of this food in your diet (and those of your kids) may just lead to healthier lungs long-term.
This is a good choice for lung health due to its high levels of antioxidants, including quercetin, “which acts like a natural antihistamine and slows down the release of histamines, reduces inflammation and protects the lungs from irritation,” explains celebrity chef and nutritionist Serena Poon. “In addition to the fluids it provides, green tea also has super high levels of the antioxidants flavanol and epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG),” Maucere notes.
Research suggests that dietary vitamin C can protect against COPD, independent of smoking history. And other studies have suggested that vitamin C might have a protective effect against lung cancer. Poon suggests grabbing your daily dose of vitamin C from healthy lung foods such as “orange-colored produce like oranges, papayas, pumpkins, carrot, apples and red bell peppers.”
Making sure that you are getting ample protein is key to maintaining good lung health, says Dixon. She adds that most adults tend to get just a little protein at breakfast (cereal, toast, oatmeal, bagel), a bit more a lunch (turkey sandwich, chicken salad) and a big dose of protein at dinner (large chicken breast, steak, burgers). “That means most of our protein intake is skewed to later in the day. To help our bodies incorporate and use protein better, we should spread it out evenly throughout the day,” she explains. Dixon suggests opting for ample protein at each meal and selecting sources such as eggs, Greek yogurt, a protein shake, healthy plant-based proteins like nuts and legumes, and lean meats like poultry, which has been linked to a 10% reduction in the risk of developing lung cancer.
“To support overall lung health and protect the lungs from inflammation and infection, leafy green vegetables, like spinach and kale, are anti-inflammatory powerhouses,” says Maucere. Per the expert, these foods contain chlorophyll, which gives them their green color and helps support blood flow to the lungs. “They also contain carotenoids like lutein and zeaxanthin which act as antioxidants in the body, removing free radicals that could cause lung damage.” To work these into your diet, the lung health expert suggests sautéing them with eggs. “Leafy greens and eggs come together nicely in this frittata recipe,” she explains.
A 2008 study found that broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables can be attributed to a reduced risk of developing lung cancer in smokers. Ashley Wood, a registered nurse in Atlanta, adds that broccoli is a lung-healthy choice as, “it has a substance called L-sulforaphane, which turns on anti-inflammatory genes.” Other cruciferous vegetables include cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts.
Cayenne pepper, per Marvasti, is rich in capsaicin, which protects mucous membranes in the lungs by stimulating healthy secretions. Wood adds that “cayenne peppers have capsaicin that helps stimulate secretions and protects mucus membranes from the upper and lower respiratory tract.” Add a dash of this to your meals as a lung-healthy food.
Ginger is a natural decongestant that helps to clear up clogged air passages and improve circulation in the lungs, says Marvasti. He suggests trying the spice in the form of a soothing warm ginger tea. You can also grate fresh ginger, which can be purchased in the grocery store, over dishes like stir-fries.
Bad Foods for Lungs to Avoid
If you’re aiming for healthy lungs, you’ll want to stay away from fried foods that are processed, as well as unhealthy fats like those found in processed meats or processed oils, says Marvasti. He adds that any food that promotes inflammation can be harmful to the lungs and that “for individuals who are lactose intolerant or sensitive, having too much dairy in the form of heavy creams and cheeses can increase mucous and inflammation in the airways leading to poorer lung function and further asthma or COPD attacks.”
For good lung health, the American Lung Association suggests avoiding foods that contain trans fats, such as butter and lard, as well as keeping your sodium levels low to prevent edema (swelling) that could lead to increased blood pressure.
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Adil Akhtar, MD, oncologist and palliative care expert in Detroit
Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, director of the Public Health, Prevention & Health Promotion at the University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix
Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living
Suzanne Dixon, registered dietitian with The Mesothelioma Center in Orlando, Florida
Serena Poon, celebrity chef and nutritionist
Ashley Wood, registered nurse in Atlanta
Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention: "Raw Garlic Consumption and Lung Cancer in a Chinese Population"
American Lung Association: "Nutrition and COPD"
Johns Hopkins: "Diet Rich in Apples and Tomatoes May Help Repair Lungs of Ex-Smokers, Study Suggests"
The Lancet: Respiratory Medicine: "Vitamin D supplementation to prevent asthma exacerbations: a systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data"
Canadian Respiratory Journal: "Vitamin D deficiency and chronic lung disease"
Scientific Reports: "Association between vitamin C intake and lung cancer: a dose-response meta-analysis"
Food & Nutrition Research: "Role of poultry meat in a balanced diet aimed at maintaining health and wellbeing: an Italian consensus document"
American Association for Cancer Research: "Broccoli May Lower Lung Cancer Risk In Smokers"