Muscle weakness, weight loss, and nutrition in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

People with severe COPD often lose too much weight. Too much weight loss causes your body to break down muscle and makes you weaker. This can lead to even more shortness of breath and even less activity. Over time, you become so weak that you need to depend on others for daily living.

About 1 in every 4 people with COPD weighs too little for good health. And those who are very underweight, especially those with emphysema, are likely to die sooner than people with COPD who are at a normal weight.1

The reasons for the weight loss and loss of muscle in COPD are not completely understood. But experts believe that it happens because of a combination of things. These may include:

  • Using up more energy and nutrients, perhaps because it takes more energy to breathe or do any physical activity.
  • A frequent need for oral corticosteroids . This medicine increases the breakdown of muscle tissue.
  • Less interest in food.People who have COPD may eat less because they are depressed, which can cause a lack of interest in eating. Taking certain medicines can also cause this lack of interest.
  • Too little oxygen.COPD may be causing too little oxygen to get into your blood. This can keep your body from using food properly.
  • Poor eating habits, which can also cause weight loss.
    • A full stomach may press on your diaphragm and make it harder to breathe. Holding your breath while chewing or swallowing may be uncomfortable if you are already short of breath.
    • Older adults who are alone much of the time may not eat right.
    • The cost of food may cause poor eating habits in people who have a limited income.

Avoiding weight loss

Eating well is important for:

  • Keeping up your strength and your weight and staying active.
  • Keeping your immune system strong. That helps you fight the lung infections common in those with COPD.

A registered dietitian can help you learn how much and what kinds of food you need to eat to stay as strong as you can.

For more information, see:

Click here to view an Actionset. COPD: Keeping your diet healthy.
Click here to view an Actionset. COPD: Avoiding weight loss.


  1. Barnes PJ (2000). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. New England Journal of Medicine, 343(4): 269–280.

Last Updated: May 8, 2008

Author: Maria G. Essig, MS, ELS & Cynthia Tank

Medical Review: Caroline S. Rhoads, MD - Internal Medicine & Ken Y. Yoneda, MD - Pulmonology

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