The Anti-Asthma Diet

Fruits & Vegetables Repair Lungs

Several years ago, Dr. Seaton traveled with his colleagues to Saudi Arabia to compare asthma and allergy rates of city-dwelling kids -- who tend to eat a produce-poor American-style diet -- and rural children of similar heritage who continue to follow the traditional Arab diet, which is rich in fruits and vegetables.

The upshot: Even after controlling for pollution and other major risk factors, asthma was three times more prevalent in city kids. "You can't blame diet for the entire increase, but it appeared to account for a substantial part of it," says Dr. Seaton, who is now studying how eating habits during pregnancy affect a child's chance of developing asthma.

In fact, city or rural kids who consumed the least vegetables and milk were two to three times more likely to develop asthma or allergies than kids who ate the most. Although fruit didn't seem to play a big role in Dr. Seaton's analysis, a handful of studies on adults, including a recent British one that looked at apple consumption, showed that it too may help reduce asthma symptoms.

Why is produce protective? Researchers think that it cleans up after your child's immune system. Thanks to vaccinations and better healthcare, kids come down with fewer infections, reducing the need for their immune systems to produce Th1 helper cells that fight disease. With little to do, the immune system gets into trouble, making Th2 cells instead. These cells inflame and injure airways -- increasing the risk of asthma. The vitamins in produce, especially A, C, and E, as well as many plant compounds called phytochemicals, act as antioxidants, helping to reduce airway stress and tissue damage. "As a result, antioxidant-rich produce may help prevent or manage asthma," explains Lawrence S. Greene, Ph.D., director of the Biology of Human Populations Program at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

In general, kids eat enough fruit, though they fall short on vegetables. Between 1977 and 1996, vegetable consumption among 6- to 11-year-olds dropped 26% to a measly four ounces daily, according to the USDA.

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