Dieting is not just for those who’d like to lose some weight. If you’re suffering from chronic pain, your diet can result in pain or, relief from it.
“A lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation,” says Dr. Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “But your diet is also one of the best ways to reduce it.”
Foods that cause inflammation include red meat, refined carbohydrates, fried foods and sodas—foods that are part of the standard American diet. So, if you’ve been eating like the average American, then it’s no wonder you’re suffering from chronic pain.
Fortunately, diet is also the key to reducing chronic pain. And in most cases, you do not need to be a professional chef or a personal trainer to create a meal plan that works best for chronic pain.
What Kind of Diet is Best for Chronic Pain?
Chronic pain is caused by chronic inflammation, which happens when the body’s immune system doesn’t turn off its inflammatory response against injury or infection when it should, i.e., when the injury or infection is already healed. As a result, chronic inflammation increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart disease, depression, and certain cancers. So, it’s important to reduce, and if possible eliminate, chronic pain immediately.
To do this, experts have suggested following an anti-inflammatory diet, which can support the proper turning on and off of your immune system’s inflammatory response.
Mediterranean Diet for Chronic Pain
The anti-inflammatory diet consists of nuts, whole grains, legumes, dark green leafy vegetables and whole fruits. These foods are staple of the Mediterranean diet, which you should definitely check out. Otherwise, here are the types of food you should be eating more of.
- Fiber-rich foods
Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, whole grain bread, rye bread, barley, etc., are rich in fiber, which helps to reduce inflammation in two ways. First, it can help fight obesity-related inflammation by lowering your weight, and second, it aids gut bacteria in releasing substances that lower inflammation in the body. Other good sources of fiber include plantains, potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Whole fruits, such as berries and pomegranates, are vital to an anti-inflammatory diet. So are dark-colored fruits. Eat them as is, not as fruit juice which has a lot of sugar and can make your chronic pain worse.
Fruits rich in resveratrol, including red grapes, blueberries and cranberries, are also great additions to your diet. Studies have shown that resveratrol protects against cartilage damage and tissue degeneration. If you can’t get ahold of these fruits, wine is a good alternative. Just remember to limit your wine intake to 1 glass for women and 2 glasses for men per day to avoid any health problems from too much wine.
And don’t forget to eat cherries, which are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that help fight inflammation and pain. Anthocyanins are also found in strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries.
A practical tip you can follow is to try a different type of fruit (fresh or frozen) each week.
Eat more of dark, leafy greens and also mixed greens, green beans, brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, chard, romaine lettuce, arugula, green cabbage and leaf lettuce. Also add tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, scallions, radishes, purple cabbage, and red, orange and yellow peppers to your diet.
A quick and easy way to incorporate more vegetables into your diet is by using frozen mixed vegetables or reduced-salt canned vegetables—if you can’t get them fresh. Cook them as a stir fry or casserole, or include them in pasta dishes and stews. Eat half a plate of vegetables every meal and replace unhealthy snacks with them.
- Seeds, beans, nuts and legumes
Soy and legume seeds contain isoflavones, which also help reduce inflammation. You’ll find isoflavones in tofu, soy milk, edamame and more.
Chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds also contain anti-inflammatory substances that help lower chronic pain. So do nuts, including peanuts, walnuts, pecans and almonds. Peas and beans are also anti-inflammatory.
Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish can become a staple protein source for your anti-inflammatory diet.
Cold water fish, such as sardines, Atlantic mackerel, trout, anchovies, herring and salmon, are best for reducing chronic pain. You can buy them fresh or canned from the supermarket. Avoid farmed salmon and the like as they will have antibiotics in them. Light tuna, striped bass, snapper and halibut are also good sources of omega-3 too. Aim to eat at least 2–3 servings of oily fish weekly.
- White meat
Because red meat, such as beef and pork, should be avoided, you can replace the void with white meat. This includes chicken, turkey, farmed birds like Cornish hens, and game birds like quail and pheasant. Just avoid frying them, except on rare occasions when you want to treat yourself.
- Herbs and spices
Herbs and spices, such as garlic, turmeric, black pepper, rosemary, cinnamon and cayenne pepper, are also great additions to your diet. Not only will they reduce chronic pain, they’ll also make your food taste fresh and vibrant.
Don’t forget ginger! You only need two to three teaspoons daily. You could consume it as ginger tea or fresh ginger beverage, or add it to a soup or to stir-fry dishes.
- Olive Oil
Remove the butter in your cupboard or pantry, and replace it with olive oil. Use it for cooking and for dips and salad dressings.
- Low-fat dairy products
If you can’t live without dairy products, stick to low-fat options and avoid processed goods as well as those with a lot of added sugar (check the label).
Control Chronic Pain
Start adding these foods into your diet, and aim for variety so you don’t miss out on vital nutrients. Just think of the rainbow and incorporate different-colored foods into your diet.
“Nutrition that supports a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods is the key to anti-inflammation and chronic pain management,” says pain management specialist Dr. William Welches, DO, PhD. “Although there are no magic foods, putting the right combination of foods into your diet can produce remarkable results.”
But don’t stop with your diet! Instead, pair it with daily exercise, good stress management, and getting down to your ideal body weight.