The keto diet can help people breathe easier — literally

The keto diet may help lower bodily inflammation, which can help people with COPD as well. (Photo: Getty Images)
The keto diet may help lower bodily inflammation, which can help people with COPD as well. (Photo: Getty Images)

It’s easy to assume that going on a special diet won’t do much when you have a serious lung condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But experts say what you eat can actually make a solid impact on your symptoms.

COPD is an umbrella term for a group of progressive lung conditions that block airflow and make it difficult to breathe, according to the American Lung Association. There is no cure for COPD, but treatment generally entails certain medications to help open the airways, pulmonary rehabilitation, supplemental oxygen, and, in severe cases, surgery. But there are also lifestyle tweaks that people can make that help as well, including eating the right foods.

“Diet is where people with COPD often make mistakes,” Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Here’s why diet can make an impact: Your body has to do work to change the food you eat into fuel — this is called your metabolism, Casciari explains, and it requires oxygen to work effectively. As a result of your body breaking down food for fuel, it produces energy and carbon dioxide, a waste product that you exhale.

When your body breaks down carbohydrates, it produces the most amount of carbon dioxide for the amount of oxygen you use, Casciari says. But when it breaks down fat, it produces the least amount of carbon dioxide for the amount of oxygen you use. So, for people with COPD, eating a diet that’s lower in carbohydrates and heavier in fat can help them breathe easier. “If you eat a high carbohydrate diet and you have COPD, you will wind up more short of breath,” Casciari says. “The best kind of diet for a person with COPD is a high fat, high protein, low carb eating plan like the keto diet.”

The keto diet (aka “ketogenic diet”) is a diet that is high in fat and low in carbs. It works to put you into ketosis, a state your body enters when it doesn’t have enough carbs for your cells to use for energy. Your body then starts making organic compounds called ketones that it uses for energy instead of carbohydrates and also starts burning fat for more energy.

The diet is also thought to help lower bodily inflammation, and that can help people with COPD as well, Albert A. Rizzo, MD, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “COPD is a disease that causes inflammation in the airways,” he explains. “We don’t have it all worked out but, in general, inflammation is not good for the body’s organs. We want to try to decrease bodily inflammation.”

And finally, the keto diet can help lower a person’s BMI (body mass index), which can indirectly help with COPD, Rizzo says. “People with COPD will have less shortness of breath when they’re carrying less weight,” he says.

Most of the benefits of following a high fat, low carb diet when you have COPD are anecdotal given that this hasn’t been widely studied, Rizzo notes. Still, patients see a change. “Some notice they can walk faster and climb steps easier,” Rizzo says. Casciari has also had patients report positive changes after going on a keto diet. “Patients will say that if they eat a lot of carbs like cereal, breads, grains, and sugars, they’re more short of breath and less able to exercise than if they ate things high in fat like meats and cheeses,” he says. “It’s significant and they definitely report that they notice this.”

The keto diet is notoriously strict, but Casciari says that people with COPD don’t have to be die-hard followers to reap the benefits. Instead, he recommends having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables in your diet and avoiding processed foods, along with focusing on eating a lot of healthy fats and minimizing simple carbohydrates like white bread and sugar. “Then you’ll have a better diet and breathe easier,” he says.

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