Rx for Asthma: Fruits and Vegetables

Jan 31, 2017 by Carol Bareuther

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. Actually, eating lots of fruits and vegetables each day keeps the doctor away. This old adage is especially true when it comes to asthma. Research over the past few years reveals that a diet plentiful in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables can help those with asthma breathe easier.

One of the best studies, out of a whole body of research, was conducted by scientists at the Center for Asthma and Respiratory Diseases at the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, back in 2012. These researchers recruited 139 adults with asthma and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. The first group was instructed to eat seven servings of produce daily (five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruits). The second group was limited to three servings or less each day.

The researchers especially looked at the effect of lycopene, a plant-based nutrient found in foods such as guavas, tomatoes and carrots by giving subjects a supplement of lycopene in pill form part way through the study. After 14 weeks, the study participants who ate the least fruits and vegetables experienced a noteworthy worsening of their lung function and greater inflammation in their airways. What’s more, this same group was more than twice as likely to have an asthma flare-up, such as a need for more medication or trip to the doctor or hospital because of asthma symptoms.

Interestingly, researchers found that the pill form of lycopene didn’t really help. It was only when lycopene was consumed in food form as part of an abundant intake of produce that also serves up more vitamins A, C and fiber that asthma symptoms subsided.

Colorful produce department photos at retailers in California and Florida. PHOTO/DEAN BARNES

This is great news for those who suffer from asthma, an incurable, potentially deadly lung disease that inflames and constricts the airways leading to wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.

The World Health Organization estimates that 300 million people worldwide are diagnosed with asthma, with a quarter million deaths annually. What’s more, statistics from this same source estimates that the number of people with asthma will grow by more than 100 million by 2025.

According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, the prevalence of asthma is higher in those who are overweight or obese. Eating more fruits and vegetables can assist with weight control as well because these foods are low in calories.

The best way to put this research into action is to put more antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables on the plate. The top produce sources of lycopene are guava, watermelon, tomatoes, papaya, grapefruit and sweet red peppers. Lycopene is part of the family of plant-based nutrients called carotenoids. Other fruits and vegetables in this family are sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, butternut squash, dried apricots and cantaloupe.

Vitamin C is another potent antioxidant in produce such as yellow bell peppers, kale, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries and citrus.

Eating seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day as the study participants did isn’t as difficult as it sounds. For example, get in five vegetable servings by forking into a salad made with 2 cups of veggies such as a mix of chopped kale, tomatoes, carrots and bell peppers. Enjoy 1 cup of cooked broccoli and 1 medium-sized sweet potato at dinner. Two fruit servings are easy: a bowl of strawberries at breakfast and an orange before bed.

Fruits and vegetables might not replace the need for an inhaler, but research shows that they can sure make breathing easier for those with asthma.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome at editor@the-triton.com.