Bad Foods for Your Lungs (Avoid with Asthma and COPD)

Top 17+ Bad Foods for Lung Health to Avoid (2024)

by | Updated: Jun 4, 2024

It’s no secret that healthy lungs are essential for a healthy life. However, many of us unknowingly consume foods that can harm our respiratory system and worsen breathing issues.

This is something I’ve noticed while treating patients over the years as a registered respiratory therapist (RRT)

We often focus on external factors such as air pollution, smoking, or lung infections, while overlooking the impact our diet can have on the health of our lungs.

In this article, we’ll explore the worst foods for your lungs that should be avoided, especially for individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Keep reading to learn which foods you can consider eliminating from your diet. 

Worst Foods for Your Lungs

  1. Processed meat
  2. Vegetable oil
  3. Sugar
  4. Fast food
  5. Carbonated beverages
  6. Bread
  7. Eggs
  8. Corn
  9. Sodium
  10. Dairy
  11. Fried food
  12. Alcoholic beverages
  13. Dried fruits and vegetables
  14. Trans fat
  15. Cruciferous vegetables
  16. Vinegar
  17. Shellfish

1. Processed Meat

Processed meats are treated with additives and preservatives to lengthen shelf life and enhance flavor. Unfortunately, these culprits may be harmful to the health of your lungs.

This includes the following:

  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Hot dogs
  • Sausage
  • Lunch meat

Researchers found that eating processed meat was linked with an increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a condition that makes it more difficult to breathe.

Furthermore, processed meats contain sodium nitrite, which is a carcinogen that increases the risk for types of cancer, including lung cancer.

2. Vegetable Oil

Vegetable oils are widely used in the food industry and are a staple in many people’s diets. However, these oils are dangerous for your lungs. This includes the following:

  • Canola oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Grapeseed oil
  • Safflower oil

Vegetable oils contain unhealthy fats that can lead to heart disease, inflammation, increased mucus production, increased weight gain, and even cancer.

In order to protect your lungs, it’s important to avoid these oils as much as possible and to balance them out with healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids.

3. Sugar

It’s been well-documented that sugar should be avoided or, at the very least, limited. One study found a link between sugar consumption and increased mucus production.

The study looked at the effects of sugar on nasal mucus in healthy people and people with asthma. It noted that both groups produced more mucus after eating sugar.

Researchers also found that people with asthma had a greater response to sugar, producing more mucus than healthy participants. This suggests that sugar may play a role in exacerbating asthma symptoms and worsening the condition.

4. Fast Food

It’s no secret that fast food is unhealthy. But many are surprised to hear that it can increase the production of mucus.

A study found that eating fast food was linked with an increased risk of developing asthma. The study found that for every extra serving of fast food eaten per week, the risk of asthma increased by 18%.

One of the unfortunate side effects of asthma is excess mucus production. In addition, most fast foods are fried in vegetable oil, which, as previously mentioned, only makes matters worse.

5. Carbonated Beverages

Just like fast food, soda and carbonated beverages have also been linked with an increased risk of developing asthma, which has been supported by multiple studies.

Researchers found that drinking soda increases the risk of asthma in both adults and children. And, to make matters worse, most people drink soda while washing down a greasy, fast-food meal.

6. Bread

Bread is a staple in many diets, which is why you may be saddened to hear that it can cause an increase in mucus production.

One study found that bread consumption was linked to chronic rhinosinusitis with nasal polyps, which are growths inside the nose. The study found that people who ate more than two slices of white bread daily had higher rates of these symptoms.

Researchers also found a link between bread consumption and asthma. Their studies found that people who ate bread were more likely to experience symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

7. Eggs

Eggs are a common ingredient in many dishes and are a good source of protein and other nutrients. However, unfortunately, some researchers believe that eggs can cause an increase in mucus production.

One theory is that the properties in eggs can trigger the production of histamine, which in turn triggers the production of mucus in your body.

Another possibility is that eggs contain a protein called ovalbumin, which can cause an immune reaction in some people.

When the body perceives this protein as a threat, it creates antibodies to attack it. These antibodies also cause inflammation, which can lead to increased mucus production.

This is not to say that you should avoid eggs altogether. But, if you’re experiencing problems with mucus, it may be a good idea to be mindful and consider limiting your intake.

8. Corn

Corn is a popular food item in many cuisines around the world. While it may seem harmless, some researchers believe that corn can negatively affect the immune and respiratory systems.

Corn contains mycotoxins, which can increase the risk of several health problems, including cancer.

study found that subjects who ate corn had increased mucus along with more sneezing, itching, and a runny nose. The subjects were also more likely to experience an asthma attack.

More research is needed in this area, but if you’re worried about corn affecting your lungs, you may consider eliminating it from your diet.

9. Sodium

Most Americans are consuming far too much sodium in their diets. In fact, many of the common foods that we eat are packed with sodium, and that could affect the health of your lungs.

Sodium causes fluid retention, which can increase the risk of pulmonary hypertension. A study found that it may also increase the risk of chronic bronchitis.

Furthermore, sodium also causes inflammation, which increases mucus production and makes it more difficult to breathe.

10. Dairy

It’s no secret that dairy is a source of calcium and other nutrients. But unfortunately, it has also been shown to impact the respiratory system.

A study found that drinking milk increased the production of mucus in the respiratory tract. Milk was also linked with an increase in the number of colds people experienced.

Researchers also found that cheese causes a release of histamines, which can also increase airway inflammation and mucus production.

So, if you’re struggling with congestion and excess mucus, it may be a good idea to limit dairy products from your diet.

11. Fried Food

Fried foods contain high levels of unhealthy fats that increase inflammation throughout the body.

In the lungs, inflammation can damage the alveoli that allow oxygen to pass into the bloodstream, leading to breathing difficulties and a higher risk of lung disease.

So, replace that fried chicken with a lean protein source, such as baked salmon.

12. Alcoholic Beverages

Alcohol is also known for increasing inflammation, which can increase symptoms of dyspnea and shortness of breath.

In addition, drinking alcohol can weaken the immune system, making it harder for the body to fight off lung infections like pneumonia.

Furthermore, heavy alcohol consumption is a risk factor for lung cancer.

13. Dried Fruits and Vegetables

While fresh fruits and vegetables contain healthy doses of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, the drying process often diminishes these levels.

Dried fruits and vegetables also tend to be high in sulfites, which negatively affect lung function.

Despite the fresh appearance, those raisins in your trail mix may actually do more harm than goods, especially for people with lung disease. Next time you’re at the grocery store, opt for fresh fruits and vegetables over their dried counterparts.

14. Trans Fats

Trans fats, also known as trans fatty acids, are a type of unsaturated fat that is produced through the process of hydrogenation, which turns liquid vegetable oils into solid fats.

This process changes the chemical structure of the fat, making it more stable and less likely to spoil, which is why they were commonly used in processed foods.

Trans fats have been found to be particularly harmful to human health.

They can increase levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the body while reducing levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

This can indirectly affect the lungs, as the cardiovascular and respiratory systems work together to pump oxygenated blood throughout the body.

Trans fats have also been linked to inflammation, which is a key factor in many chronic diseases, including those that affect the respiratory system.

15. Cruciferous Vegetables

While cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are generally considered healthy, they contain compounds called glucosinolates that can cause gas and bloating in some people.

This can put pressure on the lungs and limit expansion, making breathing more difficult. This is especially true for those with pre-existing lung conditions like asthma.

Note: The overall health benefits of consuming cruciferous vegetables generally outweigh any potential negative effects on lung health.

However, if you’re experiencing difficulty breathing after consuming cruciferous vegetables, it may be helpful to limit consumption in your diet.

16. Vinegar

Foods with high vinegar content are also usually high in sulfites due to the fermentation process. As previously mentioned, this can worsen respiratory symptoms.

Some examples of foods high in vinegar include:

  • Sauces (e.g., ketchup, mayonnaise)
  • Salad dressing
  • Marinades
  • Pickled fruits and vegetables

While vinegar-rich foods and sauces might make a tasty addition to your favorite meal, it’s important to be mindful of how much you’re consuming, especially if you have a pre-existing lung condition.

17. Shellfish

Shellfish, such as shrimp, lobster, and crab, are known to contain high levels of purines. When purines break down in the body, they produce uric acid, which can cause inflammation in the lungs.

This inflammation can lead to breathing difficulties and increase the risk of lung disease, such as COPD.

In addition, shellfish is one of the most common food allergens and can trigger a severe reaction known as anaphylaxis. This can cause swelling of the airways, difficulty breathing, and decreased blood pressure levels.

While shellfish, in moderation, can be a healthy source of protein and other nutrients, those with asthma or other pre-existing lung conditions should be cautious and consider alternative protein sources.

Worst Foods for Asthma

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that affects the airways in the lungs. It causes inflammation, swelling, and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for air to flow in and out of the lungs.

Some of the worst foods for asthma that should be avoided include:

  1. Fast food
  2. Trans fats
  3. Omega-6 fatty acids
  4. Foods high in sulfites
  5. Dried fruits and vegetables
  6. Vinegar
  7. Shellfish
  8. Alcoholic beverages
  9. Processed meats
  10. Dairy products

Check out our full guide on the best and worst foods for asthma to learn more.

Worst Foods for COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a respiratory disease that causes difficulty breathing. It is typically caused by long-term exposure to irritants, such as tobacco smoke or air pollution, that damage the lungs and airways.

Some of the worst foods for COPD that should be avoided include:

  1. Processed meat
  2. Sugar
  3. Carbonated beverages
  4. Sodium
  5. Cruciferous vegetables
  6. Alcoholic beverages
  7. Fried food
  8. Dairy
  9. Vegetable oil
  10. Bread

While there is no cure for COPD, medical treatment and lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, avoiding irritants, and eating a healthy diet, can help manage symptoms and slow the progression of the disease.


What Foods can Irritate the Lungs?

Certain foods have the potential to irritate the lungs and worsen respiratory symptoms in individuals with pre-existing lung conditions.

This includes the foods listed in this article, such as dairy products, fried and processed foods, sodium-rich foods, sugary foods and drinks, sulfite-containing foods, processed meats, and cruciferous vegetables.

It’s important to note that these dietary triggers can vary from person to person, and it’s best to consult with a healthcare provider or registered dietitian if you have a pre-existing lung condition to determine if any dietary changes are necessary to help manage symptoms.

What are the Worst Foods for Breathing Problems?

The worst foods for breathing problems include:

  • Processed meats
  • Vegetable oils
  • Sugar
  • Fast food
  • Carbonated beverages

Processed meats contain additives and preservatives that may be harmful to lung health and are linked to an increased risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer.

Vegetable oils contain unhealthy fats that increase inflammation and mucus production in the lungs, while sugar can increase mucus production and exacerbate asthma symptoms.

Fast food is high in unhealthy fats and sodium and has been linked to an increased risk of asthma. Carbonated beverages have also been linked to an increased risk of developing asthma, likely due to their high sugar content and association with consuming unhealthy foods.

Which Foods Can Trigger Breathing Issues?

Certain foods can trigger allergies and cause breathing problems, especially in individuals with a history of allergic reactions.

When an individual with a food allergy consumes a trigger food, their immune system can react by releasing histamines and other chemicals that can cause a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.

Common food allergens that can trigger breathing problems include:

  • Peanuts
  • Tree nuts
  • Shellfish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Wheat

In some cases, the severity of the reaction can be life-threatening and require immediate medical attention.

Therefore, it’s important for individuals with food allergies to identify their triggers and avoid them to prevent allergic reactions and breathing difficulties.

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the foods and drinks we consume can have a significant impact on our lung health.

From processed meats to carbonated beverages, the foods listed above have been linked to increased mucus production, inflammation, and even an increased risk of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.

While it may be challenging to eliminate all of these foods from our diets, it’s important to be mindful of the potential negative effects they may have on the respiratory system.

By incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and healthy fats into our diets, we can improve our lung health and overall well-being.

Read our full guide on the best foods for lung health to learn more.

John Landry, BS, RRT

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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