The Best and Worst Foods For Your Lungs

According to the World Health Organization, around 235 million people have asthma, and around 234,000 cases of lung cancer appear per year. Whether people smoke or not, they need to take care of their lungs. Diet is a big component of respiratory health.

Some foods have protected the lungs from diseases in studies. Others can even heal some damage to smokers’ lungs. However, not all foods are helpful. If you eat the wrong thing, you may increase for risk of lung diseases. Science says that these foods are the best and worst for your lung health.

BEST: Apples

An apple picker gathers Gala apples in an orchard.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
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An apple a day keeps the pulmonologist away. At least, that’s the conclusion from a John Hopkins study in the European Respiratory Journal. Scientists reported that eating apples over ten years slowed down the onset of lung disease. According to the lead author, Vanessa Garcia-Larsen, apples “might even help repair damage caused by smoking.”

In 2000, London researchers reported that eating an apple five times a week improves lung function. The benefits stem from apples’ abundance in vitamin C and antioxidants that flush pollutants out of the body.

BEST: Tomatoes

A man pulls a colander of washed tomatoes from a sink.
Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images
Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

In 2017, researchers from John Hopkins University analyzed former smokers’ lungs in relation to their diet. They discovered that eating tomatoes accelerated the participants’ recovery. Plus, tomatoes slowed down lung degeneration, which prevented the damage from growing worse.

But tomatoes don’t just help smokers. According to the American Lung Association, peoples’ lungs naturally begin to decline around age 35 as the diaphragm and inner tissues become weaker. Eating tomatoes several times per week may delay this process to keep your lungs strong.

BEST and WORST: Milk (Depending On The Kind)

A woman drinks a glass of milk against a light grey background.
TWitter/@NutritionDiva
TWitter/@NutritionDiva

When it comes to milk and lung health, researchers tend to swivel back and forth. According to 2013 research in the Journal of Agromedicine, dairy farmers are at a higher risk of respiratory diseases. But working with dairy differs from the average milk drinker. A scientific review in the Archives of Disease in Childhood debunked the myth that milk produces more mucus.

In the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, one study noted differences between the type of milk consumed. Low-fat dairy was associated with healthier lung function. On the other hand, high-fat dairy intake worsened lung performance.

BEST: Pistachios

A person holds raw pistachios.
GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images
GERARD JULIEN/AFP via Getty Images

Although some people may think “allergy” when they consider nuts, pistachios come with many benefits for the lungs. In 2009, a study from the American Association for Cancer Research reported that pistachios could lower the risk of lung cancer.

Pistachios provide a certain type of vitamin E, gamma-tocopherol. Dr. Ladia Hernandez, a researcher at the University of Texas, says that gamma-tocopherol has been tested to guard against lung cancer. She added that two ounces per day (1/4 cup) is enough to reduce the risk.

WORST: Salt And Salt Therapy

A chef mixes sugar and salt by pouring both into a bowl.
Jared Soares for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Jared Soares for The Washington Post via Getty Images

In the world of natural remedies, salt isn’t eaten for asthma; it’s inhaled. The practice, called halotherapy or salt therapy, shrinks salt particles and lets people inhale them. But does it work? In 2014, scientists analyzed over 150 studies on the therapy. They found no substantial evidence.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) argues that the therapy could even have negative effects. Inhaling salt may irritate airways and produce more mucus, which worsens asthma. “If you’re looking for a natural way to treat your asthma, halotherapy is not what you’re looking for,” said Dr. Maureen George, professor and member of AAFA.

BEST: Carrots

A man eats a carrot.
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Carrots came under fire in 2008 after a study in Cancer stated that beta-carotene supplements raise the chance of lung cancer. Despite this, new research indicates that carrots may help more than harm. According to research from 2017, eating carrots may lower one’s chances of lung cancer.

Published in the Frontiers of Oncology, the study asserted that vitamin C and carotenoids in carrots might guard the lungs. Plus, the research contradicted the previous study. It stated that high amounts of beta-carotene lowered the risk of cancer cells.

WORST: Soda

A man drinks soda on the beach.
Unsplash/@gift_habeshaw
Unsplash/@gift_habeshaw

In 2012, Australian researchers finished their study of over 17,000 participants. They analyzed several drinks and how they affect lung disease. In short, the more soda the participants drank, the higher their risk of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

It doesn’t take a lot of soda, either. Those who drank two cups of soda per day had a far higher chance of developing lung disease. The Lung Institute added that carbonated drinks might cause bloating, which places extra strain on the lungs. Soda is all-around terrible for lung health.

BEST and WORST: Coffee

A close-up shows a woman drinking black coffee.
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Caffeine: helpful or harmful? Health experts frequently argue over the perks and downfalls of coffee, but when it comes to asthma, it’s all benefits. In 2010, London researchers discovered that coffee opens up airways for several hours after ingesting. This could alleviate asthma symptoms for a time.

However, not all effects on the lungs are positive. In March 2019, the American Cancer Society concluded that drinking more than two cups of coffee per day might increase the risk of lung cancer. The study included 1.2 million participants, and the result remained true for non-smokers.

BEST: Broccoli

A child eats broccoli.
Caroline Seidel/picture alliance via Getty Images
Caroline Seidel/picture alliance via Getty Images

In 2011, researchers at John Hopkins University suggested that oxidative stress may lead to COPD. Since antioxidants were low in COPD patients in previous studies, they tried replenishing those nutrients through broccoli. Broccoli has sulforaphane, an antioxidant compound, and it successfully lowered COPD markers in mice.

Broccoli may also clean the bacteria in the lungs. According to Dr. Shyam Biswal, a professor of environmental health at Bloomberg School, sulforaphane helps the lungs bind bacteria. In short, broccoli may remove harmful bacteria from the lungs of patients with COPD.

BEST: Cayenne Pepper

A cayenne pepper sits on a blue plate.
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images
Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

Cayenne’s spiciness comes from capsaicin, an active component that helps control nerve pain. But capsaicin has another benefit. According to Dr. Farshad Fani Marvasti, director of Public Health at the University of Arizona, says that cayenne stimulates secretions in the lungs. These secretions open airways and protect the lungs.

Further research in Experimental Biology found that capsaicin slowed the spread of lung cancer. Although cayenne isn’t confirmed as a cancer treatment, it still lowers inflammation that would otherwise accelerate tumor cell growth.

WORST: Cured Meats

A food vendor grills hot dog.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Here’s another health consequence of over-consuming processed meats. In the European Respiratory Journal, a study revealed that processed meats harm the lungs of both men and women. In 2014, scientists examined over 400 scientific papers and concluded that processed meats (especially red meat) increase the risk of lung cancer.

How do processed meats affect the lungs? When meats are preserved, they are injected with nitrates to keep them fresher for longer. Although researchers aren’t certain how nitrates influence the lungs, there is enough research to confirm the connection.

BEST: Garlic

Freshly picked heads of garlic sit in cardboard boxes.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

According to research in PLoS One, garlic may help to kill dangerous lung infection bacteria. The 2013 study tested allicin, a chemical in garlic, on cystic fibrosis patients. Researchers found that allicin stops the growth of infectious bacteria that would otherwise cause lung infections.

In 2016, scientists from the University at Buffalo found another benefit to garlic. According to their research, eating raw garlic lowered the risk of lung cancer in participants. A similar Chinese study recorded that eating garlic cut the chances of lung cancer by 44%.

BEST: Turmeric

A person pours turmeric powder into a bowl of flour.
Unsplash/@foodfaithfit
Unsplash/@foodfaithfit

Curcumin is the pigment in turmeric that gives the spice its yellow-orange color. It’s responsible for a large host of benefits, including soothing inflammation in the lungs. According to an animal study in Carcinogenesis, curcumin’s anti-inflammatories might stop the progression of COPD and lung cancer.

In 2007, another study reported the protective abilities of curcumin. Turmeric could guard against lung injury, oxidative stress, and respiratory toxins. In the long run, this might help people with lung disease or respiratory distress.

BEST and (possibly) WORST: Onions

A woman places onions in a plastic bag to buy at a grocery store.
Dmitry FeoktistovTASS via Getty Images
Dmitry FeoktistovTASS via Getty Images

Cutting onions might make you cry, but they’ll also help your lungs. According to Penn State University, onions provide anti-inflammatory compounds that could alleviate asthma symptoms. In 2019, research in Scientific Reports suggested that red onion topicals could soothe allergy symptoms.

The exception, according to research, is pickled onions. In the 1990s, scientists reported that Spanish pickled onions might irritate asthma. They labeled the acidity and high sulfur dioxide as irritants. However, more research needs to be done.

WORST: Fried Food

Chicken cooks in a fryer.
Paul Yeung/South China Morning Post via Getty Images
Jonathan Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

When it comes to studies about fried food, lung health tends to take a backseat. But the American Lung Association recommends against eating fried food because it produces more carbon dioxide. The more carbon dioxide from fats and carbs, the less oxygen you take in and the harder it’ll be to breathe, says registered nurse and spokesperson Traci Gonzalez.

If you fry foods at home, you may be at a higher risk of lung complications. In 2019, a Norwegian study reported that chefs are more likely to get respiratory problems. The oil from fried food “explodes” or splits into smaller particles that cooks inhale.

BEST: Green Tea

A person holds a glass of steaming green tea on a table.
Pixabay/Skitterphoto
Pixabay/Skitterphoto

Green tea has some of the highest antioxidants of any tea, so it’s no surprise that it could protect the lungs. In 2007, a scientific review in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine concluded that green tea might delay lung cancer onset in smokers.

Six years later, this conclusion was backed up by another study in the journal Carcinogens. According to the research, green tea has the compound EGCG that compounds cancer. In 2010, a Taiwanese study found that the risk of lung cancer is five times higher in people who don’t drink green tea.

BEST: Pomegranate Juice

Bottles of pomegranate juice stand behind sliced pomegranates.
Unsplash/@golfarisa
Unsplash/@golfarisa

Compared to other juices, pomegranate juice contains a very high level of antioxidants. During an animal test in the European Respiratory Journal, scientists found that pomegranate juice may heal some lung damage. It also assuages inflammation in the lungs that could lead to disease.

In 2007, researchers from the University of Wisconsin tracked cancer’s reaction to pomegranate juice. According to them, the juice might stop the growth of lung cancer cells. Grab a low-sugar variety of the juice, and you’ll have a great treat for lung health.

BEST or WORST: Dried Fruits, Depending On The Person

Dried apricots and prunes are on display in a stand.
Flickr/Harold Litwiler
Flickr/Harold Litwiler

The American Lung Association says that many asthma patients forget one major irritant: sulfites. These are preservatives used to maintain color, and a 2012 study reports that at least 10% of adults with asthma have a sulfite sensitivity. Dried fruit has more sulfites than any other food, and exposure may contribute to chronic asthma.

If you don’t have a sulfite sensitivity, some dried fruits may improve lung health. The organization Pulmonary Fibrosis Now! asserts that dried fruit has higher-quality antioxidants for the lungs. According to them, the best choices include dried apricots and prunes.

BEST: Flaxseeds

Flaxseeds sit in a blender.
Flickr/Alexandra Vancea
Flickr/Alexandra Vancea

In animal studies, flaxseed has displayed promise for lung health. According to the Journal of Pulmonary & Respiratory Medicine, mice who ate flaxseed had less oxidative stress in their lungs. Another study in Cancer Prevention Research reported that flaxseed stops tumors from developing in the lungs.

Lung cancer isn’t the only disease that flaxseed may prevent. In 2012, another animal study suggested that flaxseed may protect against pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that stems from scarring. According to the research, flaxseed halted inflammation in the lungs and guarded against lung damage.

BEST: Ginger

Raw ginger slices are steeped in tea.
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When it comes to lung health, ginger offers several benefits. According to a study in the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology, ginger cleared airways in animal studies. It relaxes the muscles, which allows for mucus flow and helps people breathe more easily.

In 2018, Turkish scientists discovered that ginger heals some lung damage caused by inflammation. They suggested that ginger could stall the spread of bronchopulmonary dysplasia. If you’re feeling stuffed, try brewing some ginger tea or cooking it into a stir fry.