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Healthy eating: an integral part of asthma treatment

Healthy eating: an integral part of asthma treatment

For the most part there is no food that’s taboo for people with asthma. Just the plain old healthy eating regimen is recommended — fruits, veggies, whole grains and healthy fats. Keep a lid on the sodium and processed foods, and you should be okay. Healthy eating does not necessarily deter asthma attacks, but, especially when combined with regular physical activity, it does improve overall health.


There is one exception, though — sulfites . These are chemicals that are added to foods and drinks as a preservative. Sulfites are triggers for roughly five to 10 percent of people with asthma. The Food and Drug Administration has your back on this one. In 1986, after the incidence of several asthma attacks traced to sulfites, the agency prohibited the use of the chemicals in fresh fruits and vegetables. Fresh potatoes that have been cut for French fries and hash-browns are an exception, however.

What’s in a name?

The preservative sulfite might be listed under several different names:

  • Sodium sulfite

  • Sodium bisulfite
Sodium metabisulfite

  • Sulfur dioxide

  • Potassium bisulfite

  • Potassium metabisulfite

Author: Rachel ReardonExample of sulfite listed under a different name.

In addition, food labels must clearly list the presence of sulfites. You have to be careful, though. The label will not always list “sulfites.” It can go by other names, such as sulfur dioxide or potassium bisulfite. It is prudent to become familiar with the different monikers. Even better, look for foods that contain no preservatives.

Several foods are high in sulfites. Alcoholic beverages, including beer and wine are high on the list. These beverages actually contain natural sulfites, but some manufacturers add sulfites to preserve freshness. Other examples are dried fruits, such as dried apricots, pickles, fresh and frozen shrimp, jams and jellies.

Sample of foods that may contain sulfites

  • Alcoholic beverages, such as beer and wine

  • Condiments and relishes, 
such as pickles and olives
Fish and shellfish, such as 
shrimp, scallops
Jams and jellies
  • Snack foods, such as 
trail mixes, dried fruit snacks
Instant tea

  • French fries
Dried soup mixes
Gravies and sauces

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is considered to play a role in many health conditions, including cancer, heart disease and multiple sclerosis. Recent research has found that diets low in the vitamin may be a factor in controlling asthma flare-ups. In addition to the sun and supplements, Vitamin D can be found in some foods, such as salmon, sardines and egg yolks.

The study published last year in the Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews found that people taking vitamin D averaged not only fewer attacks but also less severe attacks, thereby reducing the need for oral steroids and visits to the emergency department or hospitalization. The study suggests that intake of vitamin D should be considered as an adjunct to one’s regular medication for asthma.


A higher body mass index, or BMI, is linked to several health conditions: diabetes, heart disease and many types of cancer. Obesity may have an association with asthma as well. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that overweight and obese children had a higher risk of developing asthma and with more severe symptoms than children of normal weight. Another study by Kaiser Permanente found that obese adults with asthma are almost five times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma complications than adults with asthma who are not obese.

Inflammation may be the common link. Obesity is associated with low grade chronic inflammation, while asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease. In addition, asthma and obesity share a few conditions. For instance, both groups of people are more likely to experience sleep apnea, in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts while sleeping. Obese individuals often complain of acid reflux, a digestive disorder, which can trigger asthma symptoms.

The overall message is that what and how much you eat may be a factor in the control of asthma. You might want to rethink that second piece of cake, or even better — have an apple instead.

Reviewed by Kathy Cunningham, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N.

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