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‘Let Food Be Thy Medicine’ – Eating Well with Chronic Pain

When asked what comes to mind when “chronic pain” is mentioned, we often think of aging. As the body ages, we can experience more physical stress on bones, joints and muscles which may lead to pain and discomfort. However, chronic pain is no longer just a side effect of aging. As a matter of fact, recent data from the Canadian Community Health Survey showed that 1.4 million Canadians aged 12 to 44 reported chronic pain. With more and more of the population experiencing what can often be debilitating pain, it’s crucial that we begin to look at what we are putting into our bodies to help combat and avoid exacerbating symptoms. Anti-inflammatory foods are a key part of the diet when looking to fight chronic pain. But, before we get into the good stuff, it’s important that we clarify what inflammation is and how it can be harmful. Inflammation is a natural and very important part of the body’s function and ability to heal; however, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can be harmful and worsen pain. Therefore, including anti-inflammatory foods in the diet regularly, while limiting pro-inflammatory foods, may help manage the symptoms of chronic pain.


Foods to Include

Get Fishy – If you’re debating whether to switch up your current diet, perhaps it’s time to try going Pescatarian, otherwise known as a vegetarian diet that includes fish. Certain types of fish, namely salmon, tuna, and mackerel, contain high amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids, known for their inflammation-fighting capabilities. Including three to four ounces of fish at least twice a week can significantly increase Omega 3 fatty acids in the body and help fight that inflammation which contributes to chronic pain.

Taste the Rainbow – No, I don’t mean a bag of Skittles per day keeps the doctor away – I mean eat your fruits and vegetables! The more color on your plate from fruits and vegetables, the more immune-boosting, inflammation-fighting antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals you are giving your body. Aim for a ratio of 2:1 of vegetables to fruits in your diet daily – with a minimum amount of five servings of vegetables per day. As far as top choices go, cherries have a high concentration of antioxidants and have been known to be excellent at combatting inflammation, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are antioxidant rich as well. The more color the better, so choose a variety!

Go Nuts – For those of you who can consume nuts, including ¼ cup per day can provide a rich source of monounsaturated fat, protein, and fibre – the trifecta of healthy nutrients. Best sources to fight inflammation include pine nuts, walnuts, and almonds.

Get an Oil Change – Choosing oils like olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado oil will help to include heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and swap out other processed oils that may increase inflammation when used excessively. Choose the less refined extra virgin olive oil as your best source!

Up that Fibre! – Fibre is known to lower C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a blood marker for inflammation. Including fibre at each meal and snack can not only lower inflammation, and in turn pain, but it may also help relieve diarrhea and constipation, which are common side effects of medication taken for inflammatory, pain-inducing diseases such as arthritis and fibromyalgia. Including high fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables, oats, nuts and seeds may manage these side effects, as well as keep you feeing satisfied at meals.



Foods to Limit

Added and Refined Sugars – Refined sugar has been in the spotlight over recent years due to its role in many health-related issues including obesity and heart disease. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that processed sugar is associated with an increase in inflammation, which can in turn, cause or worsen pain. Refined sugars are most often found in candy, chocolate, soda, many breakfast cereals, and desserts and pastries. Limiting these foods can cut down your intake of added sugar significantly and reduce the risk of increasing inflammation and pain.  Helpful Tip – look out for any ingredients ending in –ose when reading the label as these are often hidden sugar that consumers don’t recognize!

Omega 6 Fatty Acids – When we hear fatty acids, we often think of the benefits of these compounds for our health, and that is not entirely incorrect! However, the balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids in the body is a key piece to the health puzzle. A healthy balance of Omega 6 and Omega 3 should be a ratio of about 2:1 – however we are now finding that the average North American diet has a much higher ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 fats. Omega 6 fatty acids, in abundance, can trigger the body to produce more pro-inflammatory chemicals which may worsen inflammation in the body and increase pain. Sources of Omega 6 fatty acids include vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, soy and peanut. Always check the ingredient lists of your foods and try to prepare salad dressings and other easy to prepare recipes with other oils such as avocado oil, olive oil, or flaxseed oil.

Alcohol – Yes, I’m afraid you read correctly. Unfortunately, excessive alcohol intake can worsen liver function and negatively affect organ function which as a result may increase inflammation in the body. The challenge with alcohol is determining the definition of “excessive” as this can be very individualized based on one’s symptoms and sensitivity. Health Canada suggests that men consume no more than 3 drinks (i.e. 5 oz. wine, 12 oz. beer, 1.5 oz. liquor) daily, and women consume no more than 2 drinks daily. For those battling chronic pain, it may be wise to reduce intake even further and try to avoid drinking alcohol daily to allow for the opportunity to focus on other fluids such as water and herbal teas.

Nightshades – Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes have been targeted as inflammatory, especially in those with arthritis. There is mixed evidence on the matter, so try cutting out nightshades for 2 weeks to see if your pain improves. If you are sensitive, you will know based on the symptoms once these foods are reintroduced. If so, avoid or limit and focus on other fruits and vegetables to ensure adequate vitamin and mineral intake.

Balance is key to an anti-inflammatory diet to help manage chronic pain. Look to ensure half your plate is colorful vegetables, a quarter high-fibre starch, and a quarter healthy protein to ensure adequate intake of the right foods. Remember, you are what you eat.  

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