It can be difficult to describe an asthma attack if you’ve never experienced one, though it’s pretty easy to imagine the fear of not being able to catch your breath as you gasp for air. Asthma attacks can be alarming and are often described as the sensation of trying to breathe through a narrow straw. Chest tightness experienced during an asthma attack can feel like the air is being squished out of the body. An attack can come on quickly and may cause the person to feel out of control and panicked.
The description above details what it may be like to live with asthma. The disease affects one in 12 American adults and one in ten children, and these numbers are growing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (4) Asthma is considered the most common chronic childhood disease worldwide. (12)
Asthma is a chronic inflammatory respiratory illness characterized by an exaggerated narrowing of the bronchial airways in the lungs, which causes an asthma attack that includes wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and breathlessness. (10)
The American Lung Association identifies these asthma risk factors: (2)
- Having a parent with asthma increases an individual’s risk of developing the condition by three to six times
- Having a viral respiratory infection or other respiratory issues as a child
- Having an allergic condition such as eczema or hay fever
- Being exposed to dust, molds, chemical fumes, or other occupational elements
- Second-hand smoke exposure in children and cigarette smoking in adults
- Living in an urban area with high air pollution
- Being overweight or obese
There are steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of asthma, and studies show that diet may play a role in reducing the symptoms.
Diet and asthma management
As with managing numerous health conditions, there are a variety of diets that may be helpful and the same is true for asthma. In general, diets that focus on whole, nutritious foods are an ideal place to start. According to a 2018 study that examined the association between overall diet quality and asthma symptoms, participants who had the healthiest dietary scores had fewer symptoms and better overall asthma control. (3) In that study, a high-quality diet was characterized by eating a whole foods diet, rich in nutrients, and low in processed foods.
In addition to nutritionally-balanced, healthy eating, an anti-inflammatory diet is worth exploring for individuals with asthma.
Perhaps the most well-known and widely studied anti-inflammatory diet is the Mediterranean diet. Compared to the standard Western diet, the Mediterranean diet is higher in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. This is important because systemic inflammation in patients with asthma can lead to more severe outcomes, poor lung function, symptom exacerbation, and increased inflammation in the airways. (5)
A 2017 systematic review of 15 observational studies concluded that the Mediterranean diet consistently had a protective effect on children with asthma as measured by symptom control. (8) Many studies demonstrate that adherence to the Mediterranean eating style is protective for individuals with asthma, especially children. (6)
Exercise-induced asthma and diet
In some individuals, exercise can induce an asthma attack. This is problematic because we know that exercise has many health benefits, including reducing obesity, a key risk factor for asthma. Fortunately, a healthy diet may reduce the symptoms of exercise-induced asthma.
According to the authors of a 2011 review, evidence supports that a diet high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants can help reduce the severity of exercise-induced asthma attacks. (7) This is another reason to consider incorporating a Mediterranean style eating pattern, as it includes antioxidant-rich foods and higher amounts of these healthy fats.
Plant-based diet and asthma
Research demonstrates that increasing fruits and vegetables while reducing or eliminating animal product consumption may also be protective when it comes to reducing asthma symptoms. (1) Conversely, eating processed meats and red meat may be linked with inflammation. A 2012 study from Australia found an association between high meat consumption and the risk of asthma. (11)
Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, seafood, or fish; however, there are some variations of this diet, including:
- Lacto-ovo vegetarians, who eat dairy and eggs
- Lacto vegetarians, who avoid eggs but do eat dairy
- Ovo vegetarians, who eat eggs, but avoid dairy
- Vegans, who avoid all animal-derived products, including eggs and dairy
- Pescatarians, who eat fish, but not meat or poultry
- Flexitarians, who are considered part-time vegetarians as they eat animal-derived products periodically
There is some discussion that low-carb, ketogenic, and Paleolithic diets may help with asthma symptom management; however, more research is needed to confirm these effects. One benefit shared by these diets is that they can help people maintain a healthy body weight, which is important as obesity can exacerbate the symptoms of asthma. (9)
The bottom line
When it comes to reducing the risk of asthma and managing symptoms, diet can really make a difference. Choosing the right diet may require some experimentation to find the best fit. However, if you are looking for the best diet for asthma, the literature indicates that a Mediterranean or plant-based diet may be appropriate to help reduce the symptoms of asthma.
- Alwarith, J., Kahleova, H., Crosby, L., Brooks, A., Brandon, L., Levin, S. M., & Barnard, N. D. (2020). The role of nutrition in asthma prevention and treatment. Nutrition in Clinical Care, March 13.
- American Lung Association. (April 29, 2019). Lung health & disease: Asthma risk factors. https://www.lung.org/lung-health-and-diseases/lung-disease-lookup/asthma/asthma-symptoms-causes-risk-factors/asthma-risk-factors.html
- Andrianasolo, R. M., Kesse-Guyot, E., Adjibade, M., Hercberg, S., Galan, P., Varraso, R. (2018). Associations between dietary scores with asthma symptoms and asthma control in adults. European Respiratory Journal, 52.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (May 3, 2011). Asthma in the US: growing every year. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/asthma/index.html
- Guilleminault, L., Williams, E. J., Scott, H. A., Berthon, B. S., Jensen, M., & Wood, L. G. (2017). Diet and Asthma: Is It Time to Adapt Our Message?. Nutrients, 9(11), 1227.
- Labuschagne, I. L., van Niekerk, E. (2014). Diet and childhood asthma: review. South African Family Practice, 58(1),
- Mickleborough, T. D., Head, S. K., Lindley, M. R. (2011). Exercise-induced asthma: nutritional management. Curr Sports Med Rep, 10(4), 197-202.
- Papamichael, M. M., Itsiopoulos, C., Susanto, N. H., Erbas, B. (2017). Does adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern reduce asthma symptoms in children? A systematic review of observational studies. Public Health Nutrition, 20(15), 2722-2734.
- Peters, U., Dixon, A. E., & Forno, E. (2018). Obesity and asthma. The Journal of allergy and clinical immunology, 141(4), 1169–1179.
- Quirt, J., Hildebrand, K. J., Mazza, J., Noya, F., & Kim, H. (2018). Asthma. Allergy, asthma, and clinical immunology: official journal of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 14(Suppl 2), 50.
- Rosenkranz, R. R., Rosenkranz, S. K., & Neessen, K. J. (2012). Dietary factors associated with lifetime asthma or hayfever diagnosis in Australian middle-aged and older adults: a cross-sectional study. Nutrition journal, 11, 84.
- The Forum of International Respiratory Societies. (2017) The Global Impact of Respiratory Diseases. Second Edition. https://www.who.int/gard/publications/The_Global_Impact_of_Respiratory_Disease.pdf