Teenagers who forego a healthy and balanced diet may have a harder time catching their breath. A new study, published in the July issue of Chest, shows that a low dietary intake of certain nutrients increases the likelihood of respiratory symptoms such as asthma, especially in teens who smoke. Furthermore, a lack of these nutrients may also lead to lower lung function.
"Our study, as well as other research, suggests that higher intakes of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory micronutrients are associated with lower reports of cough, respiratory infections, and less severe asthma-related symptoms," said lead study author Jane Burns, ScD, Harvard School of Public Health. "Teenagers who have low dietary intakes of fruit, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids are at greater risk of having asthma, emphasizing the importance of a balanced diet, composed of whole foods."
While observing 12th-grade students from 12 communities around the US and Canada, Dr. Burns and her colleagues from the Harvard School of Public Health, Health Canada, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), examined the associations of low dietary nutrient intake with low pulmonary function and respiratory symptoms.
Over the period of one school year, 2,112 students completed a standardized respiratory questionnaire and a dietary questionnaire. They also answered questions about medication use, smoking habits, and recent exercise, before participating in lung function testing. Dr. Burns explained that the researchers focused on teens because it is the ideal age at which to test lung capacity and eating habits.
"During late adolescence, physical stature has, on average, been attained and lung growth closely parallels this growth. Therefore we were observing a time when lung function was close to its optimal capacity," she said. "Also, although our diet survey targeted eating habits only during the past year, it did give us some idea of the teens' general past diet. However, their current respiratory health may be a reflection of diet during childhood, as well as during the past year."
The majority of adolescents in the study were white, one third was overweight, and 72% did not consume multivitamins. Also, nearly 25% reported smoking on a daily basis. Researchers also found that at least one third of the students' diets were below the recommended levels of fruit, vegetable, vitamins A and E, beta-carotene, and omega-3 fatty acid intake.
"Vitamin supplements can help teens meet their daily recommended levels," said Dr. Burns, "and surprisingly, even relatively low levels of omega-3 fatty acids appeared to protect teens from higher reported respiratory symptoms."
Results showed that low dietary intakes of fruit, vitamins C and E, and omega-3 fatty acids were associated with decreased lung function and a greater risk of chronic bronchitic symptoms, wheeze, and asthma. These risks were further increased among students with the lowest intakes and who also smoked.
"I wish we could say that an apple a day can keep asthma away, but it's a complex disease with a genetic component. However, it may be that certain foods can lessen or prevent asthma symptoms," said Dr. Burns. "The most important thing to remember is that diet can have a significant impact on teens' respiratory health. I would encourage them to make healthy eating a part of their daily routine, and stress to them that smoking is bad." Researchers emphasized that fresh fruits make for convenient snacks. They also suggest preparing a simple, daily family meal, as a method to promote both communication and good nutrition.
"A balanced diet is not only good for lung health, but for general health," said Mark J. Rosen, MD, FCCP, President of the American College of Chest Physicians. "Parents and physicians should work together to monitor and maintain healthy diets and lifestyles for children of all ages."
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