Proceedings of the Nutrition Society

Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism Group Symposium on ‘Nutrition and lung health’

Dietary influences on chronic obstructive lung disease and asthma: a review of the epidemiological evidence

Henriette A. Smita1 c1, Linda Grievinka1a2a3 and Cora Tabaka1a2a3

a1 Department of Chronic Disease and Environmental Epidemiology, National Institute of Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Bilthoven, The Netherlands

a2 Environmental and Occupational Health Group, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands

a3 Netherlands Institute of Health Sciences (NIHES), Rotterdam, The Netherlands


The epidemiological evidence for a relationship between diet and indicators of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is evaluated. The review focuses on the intake of Na, n−3 fatty acids, and antioxidant vitamins as well as fruit and vegetables. Experimental studies suggest that a high-Na diet has a small adverse effect on airway reactivity in asthma patients. However, observational studies provide no clear evidence that high Na intake has adverse effects on airway reactivity or asthma symptoms in open populations. n−3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are present in fish oils, are metabolized into less broncho-constricting and inflammatory mediators than n−6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Studies in the general adult population suggest that a high fish intake has a beneficial effect on lung function, but the relationship with respiratory symptoms and clinically-manifest asthma or COPD is less evident. Also, experimental studies in asthma patients have not demonstrated an improvement in asthma severity after supplementation with fish oil. Several studies showed a beneficial association between fruit and vegetable intake and lung function, but the relationship with respiratory symptoms and the clinically-manifest disease was less convincing. A similar pattern was found for vitamin C in relation to indicators of asthma and COPD, but there are still conflicting results with respect to vitamin E and β-carotene. In conclusion, the epidemiological evidence for a beneficial effect on indicators of asthma and COPD of eating fish, fruit and vegetables is increasing. However, the effectiveness of dietary supplementation in open-population samples is often not demonstrated. Several unresolved questions are raised, which should be addressed in future studies on the relationship between diet and respiratory disease.

Key Words:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
  • Asthma;
  • Sodium;
  • n−3 Polyunsaturated fatty acids;
  • Antioxidants;
  • Fruit and vegetable consumption


c1 Corresponding author: Dr H. A. Smit, fax +31 30 274 4407, email