Healthy eating and severe asthma

Healthy eating is one of the ways you can help manage your severe asthma

Health advice > Severe asthma > Making life easier with severe asthma

Healthy eating and weight gain when you have severe asthma

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 high doses of oral steroids they can make you want to eat more which can lead to putting on weight. You may also gain weight due to increased fluid retention

“When you’re dealing with a long-term condition that’s as challenging as severe asthma it’s common to experience low mood and feel stressed, and for some people 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 this is an issue for you.”

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

New drugs, called monoclonal antibodies, also known as mAbs or biologics, that target specific types of severe asthma are now helping some people to reduce or even stop taking steroids, but they are not suitable for everybody with severe asthma. If these new medicines aren’t right for you, you may still probably need to take high doses of oral corticosteroid pills (or liquids) long term.

Even if you’re taking steroids and you’re getting asthma symptoms, it’s still possible to take steps to 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.”

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 to keep or work towards 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. 

Make small changes

To lose weight and keep it off, most experts say it’s best to make small, realistic changes to your diet and increase 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 calories and boost your mood.

The trick is to find something that you love doing, preferably with friends or family. You could try the small changes, food swaps and activity plans in the NHS’s Change4Life website for families or One You for adults.

Change for Life
One You
Keeping active when you have severe asthma

Keep a diary

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 an NHS calorie calculator and a free app to help you cook healthier versions of the foods you love. There are lots of apps available you can put on your smart phone to help track your exercise and your daily calories. Use these tools to work out how you can make simple changes to your diet.

Prep your meals

Find ways to prepare meals ahead so that when you are tired you can still eat healthily. When you are feeling well cook big batches of healthy food such as veggie-packed stews, soups and chillies. Freeze meal sized portions so that you’ll always have something healthy in the freezer when you’re too tired or unwell to cook.

To make cooking easier, you can wash and cut up fresh vegetables ready to use for a meal and store in containers in the fridge – if they are already prepared you can make a quick meal like a stir fry or salad. Also, raw vegetables like carrots make a quick healthy snack.

Eating Healthily on a budget

If you are on a low income, healthy food can still be low cost. Frozen or tinned vegetables – if they are in unsalted water – still count to your five a day. The NHS has 20 tips to eat well for less including recipes that make the most of your food shopping.

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 March 2020

Next review due February 2022