Asthma Management for Kids, the Nutritional Way
By Cassie Weness, RD, LD
August 14, 2018
Could that peanut butter and jelly sandwich you pack in your child’s lunch box be contributing to his asthma? Or maybe it’s the high fructose corn syrup in her fruit juice that’s making her wheezing problem worse? Most people are unaware of the powerful role that diet and nutrition play in controlling and preventing asthma. As a nutritionist, I have seen children reduce or alleviate their asthma symptoms with food and key nutrients.
Asthma cannot necessarily be cured, but most kids with asthma can control it so they have fewer symptoms and can stay active.
How Does Asthma Work?
First, it’s important to understand what happens in the body when someone has asthma. Asthma is a chronic disease that affects the airways—the tubes that carry air in and out of your lungs. If you have asthma, the inside walls of your airways are inflamed or swollen. This makes the airways sensitive, so they react strongly to things that you are allergic to or find irritating. When the airways react, they get narrower and less air flows to your lungs, causing symptoms like wheezing, coughing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing.
Inflammation, a Culprit in Asthma Flare Ups
How does the food you feed your children affect inflammation? The answer: certain foods provoke inflammation and others help soothe it.
Foods that provoke inflammation and should be avoided or limited:
- Sugar and processed carbohydrates including things like fruit snacks, cold cereals, flavored yogurts, candy, juice, breakfast bars, pop tarts, chips, white bread, and crackers.
- Refined oils and hydrogenated vegetable oils (man-made fats) including things like store-bought bakery items, many pre-packaged foods, many crackers and fast food.
Sugar, processed carbohydrates and man-made fats are often a huge part of the problem in kids with asthma because they cause inflammation that leads to asthma flare ups. The Journal of Asthma published a study of over 2,000 fifth-graders that found those regularly drinking sweetened beverages were at an increased risk of developing respiratory symptoms and asthma.
Foods that soothe inflammation:
What’s a parent to do? If you don’t feed your kids macaroni and cheese or Pop-Tarts®, what are you supposed to feed them? Fortunately, there are many healthy options that taste great:
- Breakfast—Scrambled eggs and whole grain toast with butter or real peanut butter (instead of cold cereal).
- Morning snack—Organic, plain, whole-milk yogurt topped with walnut pieces (if they are able to chew them).
- Lunch—Homemade soup or chili are great options. Or try tuna mixed with real mayonnaise on top of one slice of bread. Serve with fresh fruit.
- Afternoon snack—A piece of string cheese and baby carrots.
- Dinner—Meat, vegetables and baby red potatoes or sweet potatoes. Top potatoes with butter.
Not only do these kid-friendly suggestions provide a balanced meal of real food, they also offer nutrients that protect against asthma triggers. And the healthy fats in these wholesome snacks actually helps soothe inflammation and irritation.
Other Culprits of Asthma Episodes
Sugar, processed foods and man-made fats cause inflammation, making breathing difficult for kids with asthma. In addition, certain foods and/or environmental pollutants can also cause symptoms to flare. Food triggers vary from child to child, but common ones include:
- Gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other related grains)
- Dairy products
If your child has other allergies, skin problems or other immune problems, you may want to consider whether these foods are triggers for your child’s asthma. In the Journal of Asthma study on fifth-graders (referenced above), eggs showed a strong correlation with inducing asthma symptoms.
If Digestion is a Problem, Asthma May Be Too
One final step to alleviating asthma symptoms is to ensure that your child’s digestive system is healthy. The digestive system (especially the small intestine) makes up over two-thirds of the immune system. By maximizing your child’s digestive health, you are giving his/her immune system a huge boost and helping calm the inflammation that causes asthma problems. To achieve great digestive health:
- Eliminate processed foods like crackers, cold cereals, Pop-Tarts®, and breakfast bars
- Include a good bacteria supplement daily. Bifidobacteria comes in a kid-friendly powder form. Start your child with 1/8 tsp. and work up to ¼ tsp. once or twice per day.
Take Baby Steps
If eating this way is new for you, start small. Pick one idea to incorporate, like removing crackers and white bread from your house. After that has become routine for you and your child, move on to the next thing. It’s all about taking “baby steps.” Over time, you will see a huge difference in your child’s health. Children are our most precious resource; they represent the future of our communities. Feed them well!