TUESDAY, May 15, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- People who follow a "Mediterranean" diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish cut their risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) by half, researchers report.
COPD, a lethal combination of emphysema and bronchitis, is expected to become the third leading cause of death worldwide by 2020.
Smoking remains the primary cause of COPD, according to the report in the May 14 online edition of the journal Thorax.
Therefore, "The first message is that people have to stop smoking," said lead researcher Dr. Raphaelle Varraso, from INSERM, Villejuif, France. "And then, that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and fish may help to reduce risk of COPD."
And, if healthy food can cut the odds for COPD, unhealthy eating could do the opposite, he said. "In smokers and ex-smokers, a diet rich in refined grains, cured and red meats, desserts and French fries may increase the risk of COPD," Varraso said.
His group collected data on almost 43,000 men who took part in the U.S. Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which started in 1986. The study included more than 50,000 U.S. health care professionals ages 40 to 75.
Every two years, the men were asked about their lifestyle, including smoking and exercise, diet and medical history. Detailed diet information was gathered every four years.
The men's diets were classified as either eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish (Mediterranean diet), or a diet rich in processed foods, refined sugars, and cured and red meats (Western diet).
There were 111 cases of COPD diagnosed in the study group between 1986 and 1998, Varraso's team found.
Men who ate a Mediterranean diet had a 50 percent lower risk of developing COPD compared to those who ate the Western diet, even after taking into account age, smoking and other risk factors, the researchers reported.
"The most important public health message remains smoking cessation, but these data suggest that diet might also affect risk of COPD," Varraso said. "It is also important to note that contrary to cardiovascular diseases or cancer, the study of diet in respiratory diseases is recent," he added.
One expert believes that diet is important but that avoiding smoking is even more important for cutting COPD risk.
"These are consistent with other findings," said Dr. Norman Edelman, the chief medical officer at the American Lung Association. "It looks like diet is related to susceptibility to a wide variety of diseases in general and lung diseases in particular," he said.
Edelman noted that 90 percent of COPD results from smoking. "Just because a good diet reduces your risk of COPD doesn't mean that it's worth the risk of smoking," he said. "If somebody says: 'Oh, if I eat right, I can smoke and get away with it' -- they're dead wrong."
For more information on COPD, visit the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute.