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Short of Breath After Eating

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Dear COPD Coach,

Why do I feel so short of breath after eating? More than a few times after eating out, I was so short of breath I could barely walk to my car. I love good food, but I am beginning to feel that it isn’t worth the pain of not being able to breathe.

-Breathless

Dear Breathless,

Feeling bloated or out of breath after a large meal is not uncommon with people who have COPD. There are actually a couple reasons why this occurs. When we eat a large meal we require more energy to digest what we eat and experience more pressure on our chest and diaphragm. The result is we experience shortness of breath.

For many, COPD causes our lungs to become hyper-inflated, which means they take up more room in our chest. This results when air gets trapped in damaged areas of the lungs. When our stomach is filled, it can actually push against the lungs causing us to feel out of breath.

So, what is the answer? It is really quite sensible. Eat several small meals throughout the day. If you are at or below ideal body weight, eat foods that are high in calories. Avoid salt as much as possible since salt can cause you to retain fluid, feel bloated, and increase the workload on your heart. Avoid simple carbohydrates as these cause CO2 build-up in your blood causing less available oxygen. If you do eat foods containing carbohydrates, keep to complex carbohydrates like those found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grain bread.

For some individuals with COPD, the simple act of breathing takes more calories than what we are able to take in. The result of this is either chronic weight loss or the inability to gain weight. People experiencing this should eat snacks loaded in calories. While not considered healthy for “normal” people, these foods might be something like pudding made with whole milk, cheese that is not “reduced” or “low fat,” eggs, and buttered popcorn. If eating dairy foods (a problem for some with COPD as they can result in more mucus) drink plenty of water afterwards. Fried, greasy and spicy foods, carbonated soft drinks, and certain vegetables can also cause bloating.

If you require oxygen, be sure to use it while eating. This will help you get less short of breath and also aid digestion.

If you still want to go out and have a nice meal, here are some tips that will make your meal easier and more comfortable:

  • Restrict foods that can cause bloating like raw fruits and vegetables.
  • Try to eat foods that you don’t have to chew as much like mashed potatoes or soup.
  • Eat slowly, taking time between bites.
  • Don’t rush off after you eat. Take some time to not only digest, but also to enjoy the company and the experience.
  • Once again, if you use supplemental oxygen, make sure you use it when you are eating!

There is no reason a person with COPD cannot go out and enjoy a meal with family or friends. Be sensible, allow yourself plenty of time, and have a great time!

-The COPD Coach

Ask the Expert is aimed at providing information for individuals with COPD to take to your doctor, and is not in any way intended to be medical advice. If you would like to submit a question to the Coaches Corner email us at coachescorner@copdfoundation.org. We would love to hear your questions and comments. You can address your emails to any of the following: COPD Coach, Caregiver Coach, COPD Doctor or COPD RT.

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