March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Approximately 6.3 million children in the U.S. have asthma, a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways. Its symptoms include shortness of breath and wheezing during exhalation.
Overweight and obesity are also increasing in this country, and a 2013 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests there may be a link to asthma in children who are overweight or obese, especially if there is excess body fat around the abdomen. An analysis estimates that more than 100,000 children between the ages of 5 and 14 experience asthma each year because of excess body weight.
What Increases the Possibility?
It's not entirely clear why overweight and obese youth are more likely to develop asthma, says Constantina Papoutsakis, PhD, RD, an author of the Journal article. Among other reasons, it may be a result of genetics, changes in airway hyper-responsiveness, changes in diet and physical activity and more, she says. Recently, research has focused on inflammation as a cause of the disorder. Being overweight and having a poor diet are both associated with chronic low-level inflammation, which could aggravate the airways and contribute to the development of asthma, she explains.
Additionally, "a combination of obesity with asthma may be more difficult to manage," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, LDN, former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Typically, it's more resistant to steroid treatments, requires greater use of medications and is associated with more hospitalizations than asthma in a healthy weight child.
The Good News
There's good news, however. Even a small improvement in overweight or obese status may decrease the incidence of asthma, explains Salge Blake. One study showed that if children with a high body weight at a very young age developed a normal weight by age 7, they no longer were at increased risk of getting asthma. And studies show that when adults and older adolescents with asthma lose weight, their lung function and symptoms improve.
If you have overweight children with or without asthma, you can help them achieve a healthy weight to better manage or to prevent the disorder. Provide them with a balanced diet and encourage plenty of physical activity as allowed by a physician. Some studies suggest that diets with higher intakes of vitamin D and ample fruits, vegetables and seafood are associated with less asthma symptoms. Offering your children fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and snack, and providing whole grains and low-fat milk with each meal will help them meet their needs. Salge Blake recommends making an appointment with a registered dietitian nutritionist who can help you create a personalized diet that works for your entire family.