Good Food, Less Pain: Why Nutrition Matters

By Dr. Peter Abaci

If you are like many of the patients that I talk to, you are probably curious to know if diet makes a difference when it comes to managing pain. For example, can a particular meal plan relieve pain and lower inflammation? While there may not be one special diet out there guaranteed to eliminate all of your pain, there does seem to be increasing evidence to suggest that food matters when it comes to how much we hurt. In particular, the consumption of what is referred to as anti-inflammatory foods may have the biggest impact on how we feel.

Adopting the dietary habits of an anti-inflammatory diet means eating more fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, whole grains, teas, herbs, and plant-based proteins, and gravitating away from large amounts of animal protein and processed foods. Substantial evidence has shown a link between body weight and chronic pain. For example, recent studies have found a connection between an elevated body mass index and low back pain. New findings have found that the consumption of an anti-inflammatory diet mediates this link between body fat and pain by reducing inflammation in the body. In fact, researchers found that those who ate more of a plant-based and seafood diet had less pain.

There is a lot to learn from the eating habits and life-styles of people in certain cultures, who traditionally live longer and experience far fewer chronic diseases. Those who live in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea are one such example. The Mediterranean diet (which is really an eating style) got its name more than fifty years ago when researchers noticed that people living on the Greek island of Crete had long lives and low rates of heart disease and cancer. Part of the secret, we’ve come to discover, has to do with the kind of fat used in the Mediterranean diet: olive oil. A monounsaturated fat, olive oil helps lower LDL cholesterol, and contains antioxidants that prevent the buildup of plaque on artery walls and fight free-radical damage throughout the body.

Of course there’s a lot more to the Mediterranean diet than olive oil. The diet emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Cheese and yogurt are included on a daily basis, as well as small amounts of poultry and eggs. And a daily glass of red wine (which is high in antioxidants) can also be added. However, red meat and saturated fat (butter, lard) are eaten rarely, and only in small quantities.

The Mediterranean diet also helps ease the pain of arthritis (especially rheumatoid arthritis) and certain other diseases by curbing inflammation, possibly because of its high antioxidant content. Researchers have found that those who consume the Mediterranean diet have decreased risks of developing dementia, depression, heart disease and cancer, and have lower body weights, and new studies have emerged suggesting that the Mediterranean diet counteracts the effects of aging on the brain.

Here are 7 easy tips to enjoy the pain-relieving benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

1) Load up on vegetables and fruits

You can pretty much go wild in this category. Eat 5 to 10 servings of fresh, non-starchy vegetables and fruits every day. Studies show that eating at least 7 servings of fresh fruit and vegetables each day significantly improves health and lowers mortality rates. Sadly, the average American consumes far less than this, so strive to make 7 your lucky number every day.

2) Keep servings of animal protein small

Protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of every cell, tissue, and organ in your body. But traditional Mediterranean societies consume much less in the way of beef, poultry, and pork, compared to Westerners, while still getting plenty of protein through plant-based sources and seafood.

3) Eat two servings of fish per week

Fish, especially those containing omega-3 fatty acids, can help fight inflammation. Studies show that those who consume high amounts of omega-3’s have lower levels of inflammatory mediators like interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein. A 4 oz. serving of fish, two to three times a week, is recommended. But keep in mind that Mediterranean communities associated with the greatest longevity consume seafood on a daily basis. The best fish sources of omega-3’s are anchovies, herring, sardines, salmon and other cold-water fish.

4) Emphasize monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats (found in high amounts in olive oil and canola oil) can be good for your heart if they are eaten in moderation, especially if they replace the less-healthy saturated fats and trans-fatty acids in your diet. Olives and avocados are also high in monounsaturated fats and can be eaten in moderation.

5) Include nuts, seeds and legumes

Nuts and seeds are good sources of healthy fats as well as antioxidants, and they also help keep your appetite under control. Studies have shown that people who eat nuts regularly tend to have lower body weights than those who don’t, even though nuts have plenty of calories. Legumes (such as lentils, dried peas or beans, chickpeas and peanuts) are great sources of vegetable protein, fiber, and contain important minerals like potassium, magnesium and zinc. I try to bring a small bag of nuts to snack on at work, which helps me avoid eating less-healthy temptations.

6) Change Your Dairy Habits

While dairy products are commonly seen in traditional Mediterranean diets, there are some distinguishing traits about the types of products they consume. They don’t consume an over-abundance of cow’s milk. Many delicious cheeses produced in Mediterranean countries come from goat’s milk or sheep’s milk. Cultured forms of milk, such yogurt or kefir, are also popular, both of which may help improve the gut microflora in some cases.

7) Eat whole grains

Whole grains (unrefined grains that haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling, such as whole wheat, buckwheat and brown rice) are high in fiber and slow the release of glucose into the blood. As a result, you’ll have fewer blood sugar spikes and plummets than you would with refined grains (white flour, white rice, white bread and degermed cornflower), keeping inflammation levels lower. Whole grains also contain several antioxidants, minerals and trace minerals not found in refined grains. Try substituting products like farro, bulgur, quinoa, and lentils in your cooking. Some studies have linked the fermenting process involved in making sourdough bread to positive changes in the gut microflora.

The Mediterranean diet is just one example of many for adding more anti-inflammatory foods to your diet and eliminating unhealthy alternatives. Cultures across the globe offer great lessons in how to add more plant-based recipes to our meals. Yes, we need to eat to live, but why not eat to feel better and live better while doing so?

For more information on the impact of nutrition on pain, look for my latest book; Conquer Your Chronic Pain, A Life-Changing Drug-Free Approach for Relief, Recovery, and Restoration.