In an Asthma UK survey 66% of people with severe asthma said that having the condition had made them gain weight. It can be much harder to manage your weight when you have severe asthma for many different reasons:
- Your asthma symptoms may make it difficult to exercise
- You may feel too tired to make and eat healthy food
- If you’re feeling unwell, you may not have much motivation
- If you’re taking oral steroids in the long term you can end up feeling hungrier than usual, which can mean you eat more and gain weight. You may also gain weight due to increased fluid retention.
“When you’re dealing with the difficulties of a long-term condition that’s as challenging as severe asthma it’s common to experience low mood and feel stressed, and this can increase your desire to comfort eat, or drink alcohol, sugary drinks and sweetened coffee which are high in calories,” says Asthma UK’s in-house GP Dr Andy Whittamore “Ask for support from your GP or a dietitian if you’re finding you’re an emotional eater.”
“Twenty years on non-stop steroids caused seven stone weight gain. That was something I did find difficult as I was no longer able to be as active as I’d been in the past and any exercise was difficult at times. My appearance changed dramatically and people who hadn’t seen me for a while used to comment on the weight gain which did lower my confidence.” – Nichola Duane, 39
“As a result of taking steroids I’ve experienced weight gain, which is the most frustrating thing for me because I like to keep fit and I eat relatively healthily.” – Celena Dell, 34
The good news is that new medicines called monoclonal antibodies (also known as mAbs or biologics) are now available for some people with severe asthma. But if these new medicines aren’t right for you, you will still probably need to take high doses of oral corticosteroid pills (or liquids) long term.
How to manage your weight when you have severe asthma
Even if you’re taking steroids and/or you’re often getting asthma symptoms, it’s still possible to take steps to help manage your weight.
“Severe asthma can cause very difficult symptoms, and the added effects that being overweight can have on your breathing cannot be underestimated,” says Dr Andy. “This is why it’s incredibly important to do everything you can to stay at a healthy weight and keep as fit and active as possible.”
1. Reach out for support
Speak to your GP, asthma specialist or one of our friendly, expert asthma nurses (our Helpline is on 0300 222 5800, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm) for tips on how stay at a healthy weight. If you’re planning to make changes to your diet, tell the important people in your life what you’re doing, and why. Their support can make it easier for you when you need a little encouragement.
2. Make small changes
To lose weight and keep the weight you lose off, most experts say it’s best to make small, realistic changes to your diet and the amount of physical activity you do. It’s generally recommended to lose weight at a steady rate of between 0.5 and 1kg (1-2lb) a week, but talk to your asthma specialist about whether your diagnosis of severe asthma means this is sensible for you.
Activities such as dancing, gardening, housework, chair aerobics and walking – whatever you can manage – can help to burn excess calories and boost your mood.
Research has shown that people lose on average 20% more weight if they exercise as well as diet, compared with those who only cut back on calories.
The trick is to find something that you love doing, preferably with friends or family. You could try the small changes, food swaps and activities plans in the NHS’s Change4Life website for families, or One You for adults.
Read more tips on how to keep active when you have severe asthma.
3. Do your research
Keep a diary of all the food and drink (including snacks) that you have in a week ‒ the NHS has a downloadable 12-week weight-loss guide that includes a stick-it-on-the-fridge planner to help you track your weekly progress. There is also a calorie calculator and a free app to help you cook healthier versions of the foods you love. Use these tools to work out how you can make simple changes to your diet.
4. Plan ahead
It’s a good idea to cook big batches of healthy food such as veggie-packed stews, soups and chillies on your good days so that you’ll always have something that’s delicious and nutritious in the freezer if you’re feeling too tired or unwell to cook from scratch.
5. Don’t let steroid hunger win
If you’re taking steroids in the long term, it’s common to feel hungrier than usual, which can lead to weight gain.
“The answer is to eat foods that are high in fibre (such as vegetables, brown rice, pulses and wholegrain bread and cereals) and lean protein (chicken, tofu, fish, eggs and nuts) at each meal to keep you feeling fuller for longer,” says Dr Andy. “Also, make sure that you stay well-hydrated because your body can often mistake thirst for hunger.”
Last updated February 2019
Next review due February 2022