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December 19, 2011 at 12:59 PMComments: 2 Faves: 0

The Link Between Diet and Asthma

By Jessica Corwin MPH RDN More Blogs by This Author

Photo Credit: Jenny P.@flickr

Asthma is the result of chronic inflammation in the airways. Since food can both increase and decrease the amount of inflammation in our bodies, it seems logical that there is a dietary link between asthma symptoms and diet.

Foods that May Reduce Your Risk:

A Mediterranean Diet: A fair amount of research suggests that fatty fish, fruits, and vegetables may offer a protective effect in thanks to their anti-inflammatory properties.

Vitamins and Minerals: Data suggests that vitamin C and E, beta carotene, flavonoids, magnesium, selenium, and omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce symptoms of inflammation. This makes sense as most of these are antioxidants.

Coffee: While coffee and tea are not included in the foods that may reduce your risk, they are linked with asthma symptoms in a positive manner. If you're experiencing an asthma attack and are not within reach of your inhaler, a cup of coffee may help. The caffeine has a brochodilating effect on the lungs, helping to widen the air vessels, enabling you to breathe easier.

Foods that May Increase Your Risk:

As far as foods increasing your risk of asthma, there is very little information available.

Margarine: One study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that margarine may increase the risk of asthma. This is believed to be caused by the monounsaturated fatty acid, oleic acid, or (more likely) the trans-fats contained in this food. As trans-fats are not recommended in any amount, it seems wise to avoid them at all costs, not only for the potential link with asthma, but because of their inflammation inducing impact on your arteries and the subsequent increased risk for heart disease.

Salt: Less conclusive data links a diet high in salt or sodium with an increased risk of asthma. This might be due to sodium's ability to enter the muscle tissue in your lungs and create an imbalance with calcium, resulting in a restricted airway.

Will a Supplement Work?

If you are already thinking of popping a quick supplement instead of going straight for the foods, I would encourage you to think food first.

Multiple studies have investigated the association between asthma and a specific stand-alone nutrient using supplements, but these remain largely inconclusive. This is likely because, in the real world, when you eat a food you are not simply eating a single nutrient, rather thousands upon thousands – each interacting with another to create a unique response in your body (an apple alone has well over 10,000 phytonutrients!).

Prevention Begins at Birth!

The link between asthma and the foods you consume may go all the way back to when you were an infant.

A group of prospective cohort studies found that exclusive breastfeeding for at least 3 months was not only linked with a reduced frequency of asthma, but with reduced allergic rhinitis and atopic eczema as well (when compared with shorter breastfeeding duration). This same study found an increased risk of asthma if your parents had asthma or atopic eczema and if you had atopic eczema by 6 months of age. However, there was a reduced risk if your parents introduced you to oats and fish by age one.

The Bottom Line

The clearest evidence points toward a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, plus omega-3 fats (e.g. flax seed, salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, chia seeds) may help to reduce your risk of asthma and/or reduce the frequency of asthma attacks.

Aim for 5-10 servings of fruits and veggies each day, but please don't let the numbers scare you. One-serving of vegetables is simply ½ cup cooked vegetables or 1 cup leafy greens, meaning that a restaurant salad can easily help you to reach your five-a-day right off the bat! Also, a healthy, balanced diet may also help you to reach your ideal body weight, yet another trait believed to reduce your risk of asthma. This diet largely resembles a Mediterranean Diet, a healthy eating approach already linked with a reduced risk for other chronic diseases. 

Each person may have their own triggers based on personal allergies to food or environment. It is important that you are able to pinpoint your specific trigger in order to reduce your own risk of an asthma attack by visiting with a health professional specializing in allergies

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  • Interesting article, Jessica! I have a you think food coloring/dyes in candies could cause asthmatic reactions? The reason I ask is because if I eat certain candy, like starburst or jelly beans, my throat will start to close up and I start to cough and not be able to breathe very well. What's your take on artificial dyes and asthma?

  • Bri, this is a great question and in fact, many people do believe that artificial coloring and other food additives may in fact cause asthmatic reactions - even anaphylaxis. Evidence has been linked with sulfites, aspartame, parabens, MSG, nitrates/nitrites, BHT, benzoates, and tartrazine (food coloring). As none of these ingredients are nutrients, nor needed by our bodies, it may be best to try to avoid them altogether regardless.

    While the science is not yet 100% conclusive, there have been enough complaints about these additives as well as other artificial colors (which have also been linked with ADD/ADHD and autism) that I would rather be safe than sorry...

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