Consuming tomatoes, apples and other fresh produce can improve the lung functioning of former smokers, says a new study appearing in the European Respiratory Journal.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University assessed the lung health of 680 individuals who averaged 44 years of age when the study began in 2002. Over a 10-year period, the researchers monitored the study participants’ nutritional intake and measured key signifiers of lung health — specifically, lung capacity.
Over the course of the study, the researchers tested lung capacity with two measurements — forced expiratory volume (FEV), which measures how much air a person can exhale in one second, and forced vital capacity (FVC), which tests exhalation power for six seconds.
Assessing patients over an extended period of time was important because lung capacity naturally declines with age, said the researchers. By measuring lung capacity at the opposite ends of a 10-year spectrum, the researchers could compare how diet may have delayed the natural curve of decline.
They found that a greater consumption of fresh fruits, especially apples, resulted in better FEV results, and that people who ate more tomatoes, apples, bananas, vitamin C and herbal tea had improved FVC results.
Importantly, the study found a significant improvement in lung capacity among former smokers who ate a diet rich in fresh produce. Yet similar benefits were discovered among non-smokers, as well.
“This study shows that diet might help repair lung damage in people who have stopped smoking. It also suggests that a diet rich in fruits can slow down the lung’s natural aging process even if you have never smoked,” said lead author Vanessa Garcia-Larsen, assistant professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins.
Boosting the Body’s Response
Limiting lung decline is an uphill battle, especially for former smokers, according to the researchers.
“Lung function starts to decline at around age 30 at variable speed depending on the general and specific health of individuals,” Garcia-Larsen said.
The new study suggests the micronutrients contained in fresh produce, such as lycopene in tomatoes, may help the body slow the natural decline. They highlight other studies that have linked foods replete with “antioxidant nutrients” and improved lung capacity as a person ages.
“Dietary antioxidants possibly contribute to restoration, following damage caused by exposure to smoking, among adults who have quit,” they write in the European Respiratory Journal.
The study suggests that focusing in part on one’s diet may help improve the lives of individuals with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a condition marked by lung decline that affects 24 million people in the U.S.
“The findings support the need for dietary recommendations, especially for people at risk of developing respiratory diseases such as COPD,” added Garcia-Larsen.
“Our study suggests that eating more fruits on a regular basis can help attenuate the decline as people age, and might even help repair damage caused by smoking. Diet could become one way of combating rising diagnosis of COPD around the world,” she said.
Related: Do CT Scans Encourage Smokers to Quit?
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.