When it comes to inflammation, a known cause for back pain, it’s true that you are what you eat. Many foods have been shown to reduce inflammation, as well as to increase it. So when you have back pain, diet may help you avoid it. You just have to carefully choose your foods so you can reduce back pain and maintain good nutrition.
“Left unchecked,” said John Spallino, MD, of the Laser Spine Institute in Tampa, Fla., “inflammation will run rampant through your body, causing all kinds of problems, including low-back pain.” So creating an anti-inflammatory diet to battle back pain becomes that much more important.
The best thing, though, is that if you’re prone to back pain, these diet tips can be very tasty, really colorful, and fun to eat.
Fight Back Pain: Eat Your Veggies
A mostly plant-based diet that includes such things as flax and chia seeds, is probably your best bet to avoid inflammation, especially when eaten in combination with omega 3-rich coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring, black cod, tuna, and trout.
“Naturally pigmented produce is a key part of an anti-inflammatory diet,” said Neil E. Levin, CCN, DANLA, a certified clinical nutritionist and spokesman for the American Nutrition Association in La Grange, Ill. So if you’re looking for foods that reduce back pain and are high in nutrition, try carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, cherries, berries, grapes and red wine, pomegranate, and watermelon. Herbs and spices, including basil, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, garlic, curcumin, onions, oregano, and turmeric tend to be especially rich in anti-inflammatory agents, so season generously. Also, drink healthy herb teas and true teas (green, oolong, and white).
Dr. Spallino added that olive oil, green tea, and brightly colored fruits and vegetables have all been proven to reduce inflammation in cartilage in the spinal column, which helps to control back pain and stiffness. When eating vegetables, think the greener the better, he said. Kale, spinach, and broccoli are all list-toppers for an anti-inflammatory diet with back-pain-fighting properties.
Other good food choices for an anti-back pain diet: avocados; nuts (walnuts, almonds, pecans, and Brazil nuts); lean proteins, such as chicken and turkey; beans; and cocoa.
Stay Pain Free: Avoid These Foods
Robin Barrie Kaiden, MS, RD, CDN, CSSD, a registered dietitian at Robin Barrie Nutrition in New York City, said that some people say to avoid nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplant, white potatoes, and peppers) as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. “No research supports this, however,” she said. “To find out if these vegetables cause inflammation in your body, don’t eat them for two weeks and see if your symptoms disappear — just like you should do with any other potentially sensitive food.”
Other foods to avoid? Processed foods, fast foods, and saturated fats. All of these fuel inflammation. This includes white bread, pasta, rice, sugary drinks and snacks, fried foods, and anything with partially hydrogenated oil in the ingredients. Stay away from caffeine and alcohol as well, Spallino said.
Hydrogenated oils include peanut, sesame, soybean, safflower, corn, cottonseed, grape seed, and sunflower oils. Instead, opt for monounsaturated oils, such as canola or olive oil, when cooking. Also avoid preservative-packed products with a long shelf-life, such as chips, crackers, and pastries.
The Calcium Factor
Another way to keep back pain at bay is to make sure you’re getting enough of the right nutrients, such as calcium. Bone is the body’s storage reservoir for calcium. “As you age, it is hard to maintain bone mass, which can lead to such conditions as osteopenia or osteoporosis,” Spallino said. “These diseases can weaken the vertebrae in your spine. Calcium contributes to bone mass, helping you avoid those conditions.”
A 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) gave new guidelines for daily calcium supplementation. These definitions are commonly referred to as the recommended daily allowance. According to the IOM, you shouldn’t consume more than 2,000 milligrams of calcium a day (either through foods or supplements), saidKenneth Hansraj, MD, chief of spine surgery at New York Spine Surgery and Rehabilitation Medicine in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“Gone are the days when more is better,” Dr. Hansraj said. Studies show that if you take a high dosage of calcium supplements, you increase your risk for heart problems and atherosclerosis, which involves plaque forming in your arteries. Consuming too much calcium can also cause bone fractures.
It’s better to obtain calcium from natural sources, Hansraj said. But, if you’re not able to obtain enough calcium from your diet, then consider taking supplements. Natural food sources for calcium include yogurt, milk, and cheese, as well as leafy green vegetables.
Nick Shamie, MD, a spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and an associate professor of spine surgery at UCLA in Los Angeles, added a word of caution. When fractures occur, just using calcium supplements is not enough. “Consult an orthopedic surgeon and musculoskeletal specialist to devise a complete medical plan to deal with your condition,” Dr. Shamie said. “This regimen includes medications, such as bisphosphonates, that help build bone and regular exercise.”