The 13 Best Foods to Eat for Healthy Lungs, According to Experts
When you think about taking care of your lungs, what comes to mind? Not smoking is by far at the top of the list. But there are other lifestyle factors, including your diet, that may ward off—or slow the progression of—lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and pulmonary hypertension. In fact, research has shown that what you eat and drink can play a role in overall lung function, even if you smoke.
"A plant-based diet or Mediterranean-style diet with lots of leafy greens, fruit, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes is supportive of lung health due to high antioxidant content including vitamin E, vitamin C and other phytochemicals. These foods have anti-inflammatory properties, which may reduce the risk of COPD," says Lisa Andrews, M.Ed., RD, LD.
Diets high in fruits and vegetables are linked to better lung function. William Li, M.D., author of Eat to Beat Disease, adds, "Foods that lower inflammation and vasodilate our blood vessels (keep them wide open) can be beneficial for that part of lung health."
As with most health conditions, both what you add to your plate and what you limit can play a role in prevention and management. "Inflammation fuels many lung conditions, so when it comes to diet, the focus should be on foods that promote healing, while reducing foods that can increase inflammation," says Julie Balsamo, M.S., RDN. That means eating a variety of plant foods, while also limiting processed foods.
While your overall diet matters most, there are some foods that may be especially helpful in protecting your lungs—or reducing progression of certain lung diseases. Here are the best foods to add to the menu, according to experts.
Best Foods for Lungs
Recipe pictured above: Walnut-Rosemary Crusted Salmon
"Walnuts are a great source of magnesium, an important electrolyte that helps to support the muscles in your lungs," says Kiah Connolly, M.D., a California-based board-certified emergency medicine physician and health director at Trifecta Nutrition.
Plus, the omega-3 fatty acids walnuts contain act as an anti-inflammatory, potentially reducing lung inflammation and improving your ability to breathe. (Compounds derived from omega-3 fatty acids might also be key to helping the body combat lung infections, suggest researchers at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry.)
Both beets and beet greens are packed with nutrients that may help lower inflammation, which may support lung health. Beets are also rich in dietary nitrates, which have been shown to improve exercise tolerance in people with COPD.
It's also thought that dietary nitrates—from beets and beet juice—can help reduce blood pressure, especially among people with pulmonary hypertension. "Consuming beets may also reduce blood pressure levels, which can be beneficial for those struggling to breathe," says Balsamo.
There's a reason blueberries are often touted as a "superfood." They really do offer what seems like an infinite number of health benefits—including supporting lung health.
"These blue beauties are a source of the flavonoid anthocyanin, an antioxidant found to protect the lungs as we age. A 2018 study presented at the American Thoracic Society meeting in San Diego showed there is evidence of the flavonoids in lung tissue a few hours after consumption," says Andrews. While more research is needed, initial studies suggest that the antioxidants found in blueberries may also play a role in lessening COPD progression or symptoms.
While we can eat them straight out of the container, there are so many ways to enjoy these powerful berries. Check out some of our favorite healthy blueberry recipes for inspiration.
Apples are rich in a phytonutrient called quercetin, which "has been clinically shown to be beneficial for the lungs," says New York-based registered dietitian Jackie Elnahar, RD. "It helps reduce asthma risks and COPD complications and acts as an anti-inflammatory to help reduce the negative impact of COPD and oxidative stress from the environment." (Bonus: The peel contains ursolic acid, which helps improve circulation, says Li.)
Quercetin has also been linked to better pulmonary function in people who smoke and have emphysema, and may reduce the overall effects of cigarette smoke. Regular apple consumption has also been associated with increased scores on two measures of lung capacity—forced expiratory volume and forced vital capacity. All apples offer some health benefits, so choose your favorite variety and enjoy it as a snack, baked into oatmeal or added to a salad for a sweet crunch.
Need inspiration? Try our Apple Cranberry Salad with Goat Cheese.
Recipe pictured above: Baked Eggs, Tomatoes & Chiles (Shakshuka)
Tomatoes are an excellent source of a carotenoid called lycopene, which "has been shown to reduce airway inflammation," says Balsamo. A 2017 study at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health showed that adults who ate two tomatoes per day were able to show less lung decline compared to those who ate less than one tomato daily. Tomatoes are also a great source of vitamin C, which has been shown to reduce inflammation in autoimmune diseases.
While tomatoes in any form are good for lung health, it's been shown that our bodies can absorb lycopene from tomatoes better when they are cooked. So, aim to eat a mix of fresh (when in season) and cooked tomatoes.
Making sure you're getting enough vitamin D is paramount to helping optimize your lung function. "Mushrooms are rich with vitamin D, which may help decrease inflammation in the airways and support immunity and general lung health," says Connolly. (They also contain beta-glucans that reduce inflammation in the body, says Li.)
Related: Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Recipe pictured above: Grilled Chicken with Red Pepper-Pecan Romesco Sauce
Most of us attribute scoring enough vitamin C to eating oranges, but red peppers actually contain more vitamin C per serving—and all it takes is a 1/2 cup to reach the recommended daily quota. "Vitamin C has a protective effect on certain lung diseases, like asthma and obstructive airway diseases," says registered dietitian Emily Wunder, RD, a benefit which likely stems from the vitamin's antioxidant properties.
One meta-analysis of 21 studies showed that vitamin C may have a protective effect against lung cancer. Other research has linked pepper consumption with reduced risk of COPD. Crunch on red peppers with hummus or your favorite dip for a snack, add them to a salad, stir-fry or pasta dish, or try our Vegetarian Stuffed Peppers.
All beans—black, red, white, garbanzo—are chock-full of nutrients that can support overall health, including your lung health. "Beans are a great source of dietary fiber, which impacts gut health. Preliminary animal studies indicate that changes in gut flora are linked with pulmonary arterial hypertension," says Andrews. While more research is needed on the exact relationship in humans, other research suggests promising benefits as well.
One study showed that high-fiber diets were associated with better lung function, and low-fiber diets were linked to reduced lung function. In addition, a review of plant-based diets suggests that beans may help reduce risk of lung cancer (among other cancers). If you don't regularly eat beans, start by adding them to a soup, stew or pasta dish as a start. Or check out some of our favorite healthy bean recipes.
Salmon is full of essential amino acids, which the body uses to make proteins in order to absorb nutrients and repair body tissue, among other things. "The body can't make essential amino acids, so we therefore need to eat all that we require," says Connolly.
Two other important nutrients for lung health that salmon contains are omega-3 fatty acids (to decrease inflammation in the body) and vitamin D (to improve respiratory muscle strength). It's also high in fats and protein and low in carbs, Connolly adds. This may help some people with COPD breathe better, because carbs produce the most amount of carbon dioxide.
Recipe pictured above: Citrus Vinaigrette
"Oranges are packed with calcium, an important electrolyte for lung health," says Connolly. "People who have chronic lung diseases are often on steroids, which can lead to decreased levels of calcium—making it even more important your diet supports replenishing your stores." Meanwhile, the vitamin C that oranges contain might have a protective effect against COPD and lung cancer.
Besides being rich in omega-3 and protein (an important nutrient for maintaining strong respiratory muscles), eggs contain vitamin A, an antioxidant that works in the body to repair damaged cells and grow normal ones.
"This makes vitamin A important for growing healthy lung tissue and has been seen to improve lung health and tissue in those with a COPD diagnosis," says Trista Best, RD, a registered dietitian at Balance One Supplements.
Related: Health Benefits of Eggs
Leafy greens, like spinach and kale, are packed with antioxidants (vitamins A, C and E) and phytochemicals (carotenoids) that may help lower inflammation. "Some studies suggest that eating a diet high in leafy greens may decrease the risk of lung cancer," says Connolly. This could be because carotenoids are thought to protect cells and play a role in blocking the early stages of cancer.
Andrews adds that leafy greens are also a solid source of sulforaphane, a compound with antioxidant properties. "They also contain high levels of naturally occurring nitrates from the soil that your body converts into nitric oxide—a powerful blood vessel dilator, which is beneficial for circulation and oxygen delivery," says Li.
There's a compound found in broccoli, called sulforaphane, that "increases the expression (activity) of a gene found in lung cells that protects the lungs from damage caused by toxins," says Elnahar. This damage could come from things like environmental pollution or smoking.
Broccoli, along with other cruciferous veggies like kale and Brussels sprouts, contains a significant amount of vitamin C. "This antioxidant is known to improve immune health and specifically protects the body from infection and illness—especially the lungs," says Best.
The Bottom Line
What you eat can play a role in lung health. Most plant foods offer some benefits, so level up on those, while limiting your consumption of red meat and processed foods. And don't forget that overall lifestyle matters—don't smoke, exercise regularly, get enough quality sleep per night and try to keep stress in check.
Lastly, while food and lifestyle play an important role in both prevention and treatment, if you have a lung condition, they don't replace medication. Work closely with your health care team to create a medical plan that is best for you.