In Australia, asthma affects one in ten children and adults – equivalent to over two million people.1 Understanding asthma can help prevent asthma symptoms and the good news is a healthy, balanced diet can play a positive role.
What causes asthma
Asthma is a condition that occurs when the airways become inflamed and narrow, making it hard to breathe. It can cause episodes of wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing, particularly in the early morning and evening.2
There is no known cause of asthma, but there are certain ‘triggers’ that can set off an asthma flare-up or asthma symptoms. These include allergens such as house dust mites, pollens, mould spores and animal hair or fur; colds and viral infections; tobacco smoke and cold air.3 Exercise may also trigger asthma, but appropriate medication and warm-up exercises can usually control this.4
Diet and asthma
Food is not a common trigger for asthma,5 however sulphite additives (preservatives and antioxidants used in some foods) have been associated with acute asthma symptoms, affecting about 3–10% of people with asthma.6
There is emerging evidence that healthy eating may contribute to airway health. Recent evidence shows that an antioxidant-rich diet may help reduce the risk of asthma flare-ups and improve lung function.7
A healthy diet and being physically active is important for all people including those with asthma. An eating pattern that includes a wide variety of foods from across the five food groups will provide a wide range of essential nutrients.
Dairy foods and asthma
Dairy foods have often been suggested as a trigger for asthma, and it is not uncommon for health professionals to suggest avoiding foods such as milk, cheese and yoghurt. However, there is little scientific evidence to support this. A review summarising the available evidence for the link between milk and asthma concluded that ‘current evidence does not directly link milk consumption and asthma’.8 The National Asthma Council Australia also does not routinely recommend avoiding dairy foods as a way to manage asthma.9 Evidence is still emerging but suggests that fatty acids and antioxidants found in dairy foods may be protective against asthma.10, 11 Furthermore, it has been shown that dairy foods do not increase mucus production.12
Most Australians, however, are missing out on the health benefits that come from consuming milk, cheese and yoghurt as they don’t include enough dairy foods in their diet. It is estimated that nine out of ten Australian adults and most Australian adolescents need to increase their intake of milk, cheese, yoghurt and/or alternatives in order to meet the Australian Dietary Guidelines .13
Asthma fact sheet
Download the Asthma fact sheet
1 Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, Australian Centre for Asthma Monitoring. Asthma in Australia 2011. Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare; 2011. Asthma Series no. 4. Cat. no. ACM 22. Available: http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129544677
2 National Asthma Council Australia. Symptoms [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2015. Available: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/understanding-asthma/what-is-asthma-#2
3 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers
4 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0. [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available from: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/triggers
5 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp
6 National Asthma Council Australia. Asthma and allergy [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2013. Available from: http://www.nationalasthma.org.au/publication/asthma-allergy-hp
7 Wood LG, Garg ML, Smart JM, Scott HA, Barker D, Gibson PG. Manipulating antioxidant intake in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012; 96:534-43.
8 Thiara, G and Goldman, RD. Milk consumption and mucus production in children with asthma. Can Fam Physician. 2012;58(2):165-66.
9 National Asthma Council Australia. Australian Asthma Handbook, Version 1.0 [Internet]. National Asthma Council Australia, Melbourne, 2014. Available: http://www.asthmahandbook.org.au/clinical-issues/food/healthy-eating
10 Lumia M Luukkainen P, Kaila M, Tapanainen H, Takkinen HM, Prasad M et al. Maternal dietary fat and fatty acid intake during lactation and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Acta Paediatr. 2012;101(8):e337-43.
11 Lumia M, Luukkainen P, Tapanainen H, Kaila M, Erkkola M, Uusitalo L et al. Dietary fatty acid composition during pregnancy and the risk of asthma in the offspring. Pediatr Allergy Immunol. 2011;22(8):827-35.
12 Wuthrich B et al. Milk consumption does not lead to mucus production or occurrence of asthma. J Am Coll Nutr. 2005;24(6 Suppl):547S-55S.
13 Doidge JC, Segal L. Most Australians do not meet recommendations for dairy consumption: findings of a new technique to analyse nutrition surveys. NZ J Pub Health. 2012;36(3):236-40