Could children with asthma breathe easier if they ate better? A small study suggests it’s a possibility worth exploring further.
Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute (CHORI) found that obese adolescents with asthma who ate two nutrition bars daily for eight weeks experienced improved lung function.
The 56 study subjects, half of whom ate the nutrition bars daily, also attended weekly classes that emphasized the importance of healthy eating and exercise but were not required to change their diet.
The improvements on a breathing test were modest, but “the fact that this worked at all without controlling for diet was amazing,” study co-author Mark Shigenaga, PhD, told Healthline.
The “CHORI bar” is composed of ingredients found in a typical Mediterranean diet and was designed to fill nutritional gaps for unhealthy eaters.
Joyce McCann, PhD, director of the CHORI-bar project, said that past research has shown a relationship between eating a Mediterranean diet and reduced risk of asthma.
Improvements in lung function were observed only among participants who ate the CHORI bar and had a low level of chronic inflammation, according to researchers.
Past research by CHORI also showed that high levels of chronic inflammation blunted the positive effects of improved nutrition among obese adults.
The recent study, published in the FASEB Journal, noted that eating the CHORI-designed nutrition bar was associated with improvements in a type of asthma that is often resistant to other interventions.
“The type of asthma among obese individuals is very different from other types of asthma,” McCann said. “It’s a different type of inflammation, and this type of asthma seems to be associated with the type of metabolic disorders that the CHORI bar is designed to improve.”
How is it working?
In a press statement, Shigenaga said, “While we do not know the mechanism by which the CHORI bar is improving lung function, we suspect it may be by strengthening the barrier in the lining of the lung.”
Shigenaga told Healthline that specific micronutrients like zinc, magnesium, and iron contained in the CHORI bar may help reduce inflammation in epithelial cells.
“This barrier is known to be weakened in asthma, leading to the entry of antigens and inflammation,” he said. "This parallels the way we think the bar is working at the gut barrier.”
Dr. Sonal R. Patel, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at Adventist Health Physicians Network in Los Angeles, said that while the research was interesting, the idea that the nutrition bar strengthened the lining of the lung was “purely hypothetical.”
“Though weight loss was not required, I believe that attending classes on eating and exercise likely changed the participants’ eating habits, in addition to getting appropriate nutrients in the patented bar,” she said. "I do believe that there are certain subsets of asthmatics that would definitely benefit from this type of treatment [and] that a lot of current chronic conditions are exacerbated by poor diets.”
“Our group had previously demonstrated that the CHORI bar improved metabolic health in obese, otherwise healthy adults,” CHORI research and senior study author Bruce Ames, PhD, said in a press statement. “We wanted to test whether the bar would also benefit people that had been diagnosed with obesity-linked conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension.”
Ames is the progenitor of the Triage Theory of metabolism, which postulates that when the diet is nutritionally deficient, the body directs whatever supply of nutrients is available to essential short-term metabolic functions and neglects those that work to prevent long-term damage. The theory holds that this can occur even when nutritional intake is even modestly deficient.