Nutrition News & Views

Is your diet giving you asthma?

burger and chips

Recent research points to links between diet – especially a poor diet – and asthma.

More than two million Australians suffer from asthma, a chronic lung condition where the airways in the lungs become inflamed and narrowed, causing shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing, with severity ranging from mildly irritating to life-threatening.

While its cause remains largely unknown, there are a number of “triggers” that provoke an attack, including allergens such as dust, smoke, pollen, even exercise, and depending on the severity of attacks asthmatics may require daily medication for effective control.

Food has long been viewed with suspicion as an asthma trigger. In particular, milk and dairy products were thought – wrongly – to be triggers, but research shows dairy products may actually reduce asthma development in children.

Breast feeding is known to reduce the likelihood of asthma in babies and young children, but this protection fades in later childhood and adulthood.

Studies now indicate that the modern Western diet of high salt, high sugar, saturated fats, highly-processed foods and heavy red meat intake may be contributing to asthma attacks.

These foods can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, and also alter the balance of microbes living in the digestive system which normally help digest food and produce helpful chemicals.

The result is a tendency to body-wide inflammatory response, which may trigger the lung airways to constrict.

By contrast, the “Mediterranean Diet” of larger serves of vegetables, grains, fruit and fish seems to reduce asthma, possibly because these foods contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation.

A recent French study of over 34,000 people found that vegetables, whole-grain cereals and fruits reduced asthma symptoms, by up to 30 per cent, and up to 60 per cent better control of symptoms.

In other words, fewer asthma attacks and less severe attacks.

More studies are needed, but it looks like the general advice of eating a balanced diet, with lots of vegetables, grains, fruit and fish, with only small serves of meat and very little added salt and sugar, is helpful in reducing asthma, as well as having lots of other health benefits.

Incidentally, research shows being overweight doesn't help asthma either… another good reason to manage your diet and exercise to maintain a healthy weight.

Natalia Knezevic is a dietitian and nutritionist practicing in Orange, New South Wales, with over 22 years experience supporting patients with weight- and diet-related conditions.