Childhood asthma is a major and growing public health problem worldwide. Adults get asthma too. The western, meat-centered diet may partly explain the “asthma epidemic” in the United States.
Asthma is the most common chronic disease of childhood. The prevalence has been increasing at an alarming rate and has more than doubled in the last decade. Over 9 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with asthma. That’s a lot of children. There are few things more upsetting than a sick child.
What is asthma? Asthma is a disease in which your airways narrow and swell and may produce extra mucus and inflammation due to a hyper response to things that don’t really cause infections such as respiratory allergens. This can make breathing difficult and trigger coughing, a whistling sound (wheezing) when you breathe out, and shortness of breath. For some people, asthma is a minor nuisance. For others, it can be a major problem that interferes with daily activities and may lead to a life-threatening asthma attack.
Studies show that vegetarians have a reduced risk of asthma. Plant foods contain special substances called phytonutrients that can reduce inflammation and act as antioxidants which help give vegetarians an advantage.
Eating meat increases the risk of wheezing, a symptom of asthma, in children. Meat also increases the risk of disturbed sleep from wheezing and the risk of exercise-induced wheezing. Inflammatory compounds found in cooked meat have been found to give rise to a heightened risk of childhood wheeze. These compounds, known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs for short, are by-products of high temperature cooking, such as grilling, frying, or roasting, with cooked meat being a major dietary source. Milk has also been implicated as increasing the risk of asthma through a different mechanism.
However, you can reduce your risk of getting asthma in the first place by eating more vegetables and whole grains. A study lowered the risk of getting asthma by 42% for those eating more vegetables and 54% for those eating more whole grains, while consuming dairy increased the risk by 93% and intake of cured meats such as salami, pastrami and bacon, was associated with worsening asthma symptoms by 76%.
What if someone already has asthma? One study on people with asthma receiving long term medication, who were placed on a vegan diet for a year, found that in almost all cases medication was able to be withdrawn or drastically reduced. There was a significant decrease in asthma symptoms with 71% of patients reporting improvement at 4 months and 92% after a year.
This is not surprising since asthma may, in part, be an autoimmune disease. People who follow a plant-based diet have lower levels of inflammation, and lower risks of other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
It’s time that every doctor recommended that children avoid animal products, and that their asthmatic patients try a fully plant-based diet. See our professional level article on asthma.