Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a group of lung diseases that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Smoking or exposure to air pollutants usually causes COPD. It is becoming increasingly common, affecting an estimated 392 million people worldwide.

Some research has identified obesity as a risk factor for COPD. Doctors define obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. The number of people with obesity worldwide is also on the rise.

COPD and obesity have a complex and somewhat paradoxical relationship. COPD can make it difficult to manage obesity, and obesity can make breathing with COPD even harder.

But some studies seem to indicate that people with COPD and obesity have better outcomes than those without obesity. It’s unclear why this is. The relationship between the two conditions is not well understood, and study results are conflicting, so more research is needed.

This article will review what we know about how the two conditions affect each other and how you can help manage both.

In a review of studies, researchers found that patients with COPD were more likely to also have obesity than the general population. Meanwhile, obesity seems to be less common in people with severe COPD than in the general population.

Obesity can be a risk factor for developing COPD. One study found that the higher the level of obesity, the greater the risk of COPD in those who have never smoked. Smoking is one of the major causes of COPD.

While obesity may arguably have some protective advantages in certain situations, it also decreases the quality of life for those with COPD. It can make it harder to manage COPD, according to a 2018 study.


Dyspnea means shortness of breath, and can be moderate or severe. COPD causes lung damage, and many people with the condition can have trouble breathing at times because their lungs are not able to function properly. Patients in a 2017 study who had both conditions had worse dyspnea.

Obesity can cause or worsen dyspnea. Too much fat around the lungs can compress them, making them work harder and less effectively.

Dyspnea caused by obesity may not respond to COPD interventions. Reducing the amount of fat around your lungs can help you breathe better. Focusing on ways to get more physical activity can help you manage your weight.

Lung function

There is some indication that those with obesity are less likely to experience lung hyperinflation, but studies have not been conclusive. Hyperinflation happens when air gets trapped in the lungs but can’t get back out due to damage, as is sometimes seen in COPD patients.

But research shows that obesity negatively impacts respiratory disease. Pressure and constriction from a buildup of fat around the heart, lungs, and chest wall change how those organs normally function. That can make respiratory conditions more serious.

Other conditions

Obesity can lead to, or occur with, other serious conditions that could lower the quality of life for people with COPD. These include:

It’s important to manage your weight when you have COPD and obesity. Addressing both conditions can help you feel much better and improve your prognosis and quality of life.

Here are steps you can take to help manage both conditions.

  • Quit smoking. If you’re a smoker, the best thing you can do is quit. Also, avoid secondhand smoke and air pollution. If you need help quitting, make a plan with your healthcare team.
  • Choose the right treatments. COPD treatment options include medications, breathing programs, and other interventions. You’ll need to work with your doctor or healthcare team to choose the right combination for you. Good and consistent medical care is extremely important.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Some foods can help you effectively manage your weight and breathe better. The American Lung Association recommends eating more whole grains, fruits, lean meats, and certain types of fats. You should avoid fatty meat, saturated fats, and simple carbohydrates.
  • Be physically active. Exercise can help you manage your weight and COPD symptoms. If you don’t know where to start, walking can work for you regardless of your BMI. Resistance training can help you improve your body composition.

Can obesity cause COPD?

No, but it can make symptoms worse and cause other problems such as heart disease.

COPD can make it hard to manage obesity because people who have COPD often have trouble breathing. They can also experience fatigue, making exercise and healthy food prep harder.

Smoking is by far the largest cause of COPD. It’s also possible to get COPD from air pollution or working in at-risk occupations.

Can COPD cause me to gain weight?

COPD itself often causes people to lose weight. If you’re gaining weight, it could be due to:

  • quitting smoking
  • getting too little physical activity
  • not getting enough sleep
  • medications you might be taking

Why do people with COPD tend to lose weight?

About 25 to 40 percent of people with COPD have low body weight or are undernourished. About a quarter of people with COPD experience moderate to severe weight loss.

Weight loss in those with COPD can be a sign of severe COPD. When you work harder to breathe, you consume more energy, which can lead to weight loss. Many people with COPD also eat less due to not feeling well.

The American Lung Association has tips on weight gain and proper nutrition.

Is being underweight bad for COPD?

A review of studies indicates that being undernourished reduces your quality of life and increases your risk of serious complications from COPD. A well-balanced diet helps your heart and lung health and lowers cardiovascular and metabolic risk. It will help you feel better, too.

COPD and obesity are preventable and treatable diseases. The relationship between the two is unclear.

Obesity seems to have harmful effects in patients with COPD. But exacerbation and mortality rates are lower for those with obesity. It’s important to both manage your weight and treat COPD with the help of your medical team.

There are effective ways to make sure you stay nourished and maintain a healthy weight, which will improve your overall health and outlook.

COPD can’t be cured, but your medical team can help you develop an individualized plan to slow its progression and address obesity.

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