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The Medicare Diet: Best Diet for COPD in Seniors


Posted on June 26, 2023 by Austin Lang

Catch Your Breath With the Right COPD Diet

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder (COPD) affects over 16 million Americans, many of them seniors. As the name implies, COPD is characterized by an obstruction of the lungs, making it difficult to breathe. What you might not realize, however, is the connection between COPD and diet which can play a major role in symptom management.

You see, while there is no way to reverse the damage caused by COPD, a proper diet plan can help make symptoms that much more manageable. However, in order to understand how, we need to understand the link between respiration and digestion, and how COPD disrupts that process.

Digestion, Respiration, and Excretion

The digestive system

The human body has three main systems associated with managing the intake and output of material: digestion, respiration, and excretion. 

  • Digestion is the breakdown of food into components the body’s cells can use, like proteins and sugars. 
  • Respiration is a fancy term for ‘breathing’, or more specifically the intake of oxygen gas from the atmosphere.
  • Excretion is the process of removing waste products from the body. This includes passing waste through urine and feces, but also includes exhaling carbon dioxide.

These systems work together to facilitate the complex chemical reactions that allow us to live. Countless reactions in the body rely on combining oxygen with the nutrients we consume in order to create new proteins, store and release energy, and perform any number of other bodily functions. Similarly, the carbon dioxide (CO2) we exhale is as much a product of what we eat as it is what we inhale. That carbon has to come from somewhere, after all. 

Counterintuitively, one of the biggest problems caused by COPD isn’t breathing in, but breathing out. CO2, as a waste product, becomes toxic to the body if allowed to build up. This results in a condition called hypercapnia, leading to symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and confusion. Needless to say, this isn’t good. However, we can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we produce with changes to our diet.

The Carbon Connection

Dictionary definition of carbohydrate

Astute readers have already noticed the link between carbon dioxide and carbohydrates: that ubiquitous element that serves as the foundation for all life on Earth, carbon. Carbohydrates are molecules consisting of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen atoms in various combinations. When we consume carbohydrates, we break them down into their base components for energy. This reaction results in carbon dioxide, which is exhaled back into the atmosphere, and eventually consumed by plants and turned back into carbohydrates and oxygen. Therefore, the more carbohydrates you consume, the more carbon dioxide you produce. 

Of course, you can’t not consume carbohydrates. While studies have shown that a ketogenic diet can lead to improvements in COPD symptoms, you still need to meet your nutritional needs. This is especially true with COPD, as it kicks your metabolism into overdrive. To put it in perspective,  a person with COPD can use over 700 calories per day just to breathe. In comparison, a healthy person uses only 100. This means that person with COPD is expending the same amount of energy breathing as a healthy person would spend on an intense workout. You’re going to need those carbs.

However, you can be smart about what carbs you consume. Complex carbohydrates, like those found in bran, oats, quinoa, and barley, have more nutritional value than those found in simple sugars and starches. A solid COPD diet plan will focus on protein and healthy fat, with carbohydrates in the form of healthy grains, fruits, and vegetables. As always, fried foods, simple carbohydrates, and other forms of junk food should be avoided in any diet for COPD patients. 

Of course, nutrition isn’t the only factor at play here.

The Physical Factor

A glass of water

Even without complex chemical reactions at play, what you eat can play a major role in your ability to breathe. Here’s an example: ever felt so bloated that it seemed difficult to breathe? Abdominal bloating can cause the stomach to press against the diaphragm, making it difficult for the lungs to fully expand. For people who already have obstructed breathing, this can be a big problem. Even if you’re eating the best diet for COPD, it won’t do much if you’re stuffing yourself to the point of breathlessness!

Doctors recommend splitting your food intake into smaller meals, roughly five a day, to reduce the risk of bloating. You should also avoid foods that make you gassy,  like carbonated drinks. Some otherwise healthy foods, like kale and broccoli, can also cause bloating, so be mindful of your response to them.

Mucus also plays a large role in COPD, as phlegm is one of the main causes of obstruction in the lungs. Conventional wisdom says that avoiding dairy products like milk and cheese can reduce phlegm production, but this is a misconception. The “phlegmy” feeling in your throat after you drink milk is due to fats in the milk, not increased mucus production. So, if you don’t have issues with lactose intolerance (which can cause the aforementioned bloating) consuming dairy in moderation is fine. However, you should still drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Dehydration, which can be exacerbated by alcohol and caffeine consumption, results in thicker phlegm and worsened symptoms, so be sure to follow our tips on how to stay hydrated!

To put it all together, here’s a COPD-friendly recipe you’ll love.

Brown Rice Burrito Bowl


  • ½ cup brown rice. 
  • ¼ cup thawed frozen corn.
  • ¼ cup diced tomatoes
  • ¼ cup chopped red onion
  • ¼ cup Chopped romaine lettuce
  • ½ avocado (chopped)
  • Roughly 8 oz of black beans (rinsed and drained)
  • 2 oz chicken, seasoned with cumin, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, salt, and pepper.
  • Cilantro and lime to taste.



  1. Prepare the rice as directed, then set aside. We recommend using a rice cooker, but microwave-ready rice will also work.
  2. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat and add a small amount of olive oil. Add the chicken and heat until cooked through. Set aside.
  3. Arrange rice and lettuce in a bowl, and top with chicken, tomatoes, avocado, corn, black beans, and onion. Season with lime juice and top with cilantro.

If you’re wondering how Medicare Advantage can help you manage your COPD, we can help. Our licensed agents can discuss your needs and help you find a plan with benefits that work for you. Call us today at (800) 950-0608 or try out our free comparison tool to begin your search.

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