If you’re living with chronic pain, a carefully considered diet could genuinely help you to feel better. So many of the nutrients our bodies need can be found in simple ingredients that form the basis of healthy and tasty recipes, while flare ups can be minimised by avoiding other food types.
The Best Food for Back Pain
The first step is to try to identify the source of your pain. There are plenty of foods that will help to boost your body’s general health and are a great choice for anyone who suffers from chronic pain… but what relieves one condition may exacerbate another.
For example, organ meats such as liver are a great source of B vitamins, which are essential for enabling your body to produce the energy it needs to run, but are also high in purines, which contribute to gout. If the source of your pain is gout, you will need to find an alternative source of vitamin B.
In this guide we will cover the foods to choose and avoid for two common back pain issues: nerve pain and joint pain.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Include in Your Diet
Whatever the source of your back pain, it is likely that you are experiencing inflammation. This is your body’s natural response to defend itself; it fights infection by producing more immune cells, white blood cells and cytokines. Chronic inflammation is a painful reality for many people with long-term back pain.
The good news is that there is a range of foods that are proven to contain anti-inflammatory agents and can be used to reduce back pain. The most basic rule is to make sure that you have a balanced diet of carbs, fat, protein, fibre, vitamins, minerals and water.
If you’re vegetarian or vegan, make sure that you are getting your required daily intake of protein and fat from non-animal sources such as nuts, seeds, grains, pulses or soya.
Here are a few of the basics of an anti-inflammatory diet:
- Leafy greens – greens such as spinach and kale are superfoods packed full of nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and vitamin B
- High fat fruits – foods such as avocados and olives are a great source of fat that help to reduce inflammation
- Deeply coloured fruit and veg – blueberries, beetroot, cherries and red cabbage are all excellent antioxidants
- Dark chocolate – you don’t have to cut out all of your vices on an anti-inflammatory diet; dark chocolate contains more antioxidants than blueberries and raspberries
Foods that are high in fibre, such as sweet potatoes and prunes, should also be a part of your diet. These help to keep your digestive system moving; as constipation can make back pain worse, this is an important consideration.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
There are a number of foods, mostly refined or processed, that are linked with an increase in chronic inflammation.
- Refined carbs such as white pasta and white bread
- Sugary drinks, including soft drinks and fruit juices
- Any foods with partially hydrogenated oils, such as crisps, margarine and microwave ready meals
- Processed meat, including sausages and salami
- Excessive alcohol
Although it is highly recommended that you reduce the number of these foods in your diet to alleviate back pain, you needn’t be afraid of the occasional treat. Coping with chronic pain is all about balance – and that means looking after your emotional wellbeing, too. Don’t make yourself miserable!
Best Foods for Nerve Pain in the Back (Sciatica, Slipped Disk)
Nerve pain is an unpleasant symptom of a number of back problems, including sciatica, the irritation of the sciatic nerve, and a slipped disk, which occurs when the cartilage in your spine presses on the nerve. In addition to the anti-inflammatory foods suggested above, you might wish to try a few of the following ingredients in your meals to keep your nervous system functioning properly.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blausen_0484_HerniatedLumbarDisc.png (CC BY 3.0)
Vitamin B for a healthy nervous system
Your body needs the eight B vitamins to maintain energy levels and ensure the health of your nervous system. As your body can’t store any of the B vitamins (except B12), it is important that you consume them regularly in your diet to feel the health benefits.
Vitamin-B rich foods include:
- Salmon – this fish ticks a lot of different boxes, as it is high in a number of B vitamins, low in mercury and is a source of omega-3 fatty acids
- Eggs – a single egg can provide up to a third of your recommended daily intake of biotin (B7)
- Legumes – chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, green peas and other legumes are a good source of B12, which makes them ideal for vegans and vegetarians
Curcumin: the super antioxidant
Curcumin, one of the active ingredients in the Indian spice turmeric, has wowed scientists with its impressive health properties as an anti inflammatory agent and an antioxidant. In fact, it has even been known to prove more effective than anti-inflammatory drugs for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
However, it is important to note that the body cannot naturally absorb all of the benefits of curcumin. The best way to benefit from it is to use it alongside black pepper; black pepper contains piperine which acts as an enhancing agent.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Curcuma_longa_roots.jpg (CC BY 3.0)
This Indian-style veggie recipe from Roopa Gulati is quick to prepare, cheap to buy and, most importantly, full of delicious flavour.
The chilli peppers and ginger are excellent antioxidants, we know that the spinach and turmeric are superb anti-inflammatories and the chickpeas are an ideal source of vitamin B. Just make sure to serve with brown rice or wholegrain naan, and season with black pepper.
Chickpeas with tomatoes & spinach – serves 4
Prep time: 10 mins; Cook time: 25 mins
- 1 tbsp vegetable oil
- 1 red onion, sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped
- ½ finger length piece fresh root ginger, shredded
- 2 mild red chillies, thinly sliced
- ½ tsp turmeric
- ¾ tsp garam masala
- 1 tsp ground cumin
- 4 tomatoes, chopped
- 2 tsp tomato purée
- 400g can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
- 200g baby spinach leaves
- rice or naan bread, to serve
- Heat the oil in a wok and fry the onion over a low heat until softened. Stir in the garlic, ginger and chillies and cook for a further 5 mins until the onions are golden and the garlic is slightly toasted.
- Add the turmeric, garam masala and cumin, stirring over a low heat for a few seconds. Tip in the chopped tomatoes and add the tomato purée, then simmer for 5 mins.
- Add the chickpeas to the pan with 300ml water (fill the can three-quarters full). Simmer for 10 mins before stirring in the spinach to wilt. Season and serve with rice or naan.
Best Foods for Joint Pain in the Back (Osteoarthritis, Ankylosing spondylitis)
Chronic joint pain in your back can be very debilitating and, as a result, depressing for those who have to live with it. Causes could include osteoarthritis, the breakdown of cartilage on the ends of your bones, or Ankylosing spondylitis (AS), which is a swelling of the joints in the spine.
The anti-inflammatory recommendations above will serve those with joint pain, but there are a few other dietary additions that may also help.
Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rheumatoid-Arthritis.png (Public Domain Mark 1.0)
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3 is often associated with oily fish, but it can be found in other food sources too. It has been proven to help reduce inflammation and also improve bone strength by helping to increase the calcium absorption of your bones, which makes it a great addition to the diets of those with joint pain.
Omega-3 rich foods include:
- Mackerel – this is a great, versatile fish that can be bought raw, smoked or salted in most supermarkets; you’ll not only get your omega-3 fix but also a good dose of B12 and selenium too
- Oysters – shellfish are packed full of essential nutrients, including zinc, copper, B12 and omega-3 fat
- Seeds such as flax and chia – there are many reasons to love these versatile seeds; vegetarians and vegans will love the fact that they provide a meat-free source of omega-3
It’s no secret that calcium is important for the maintenance of healthy bones. Calcium is needed to circulate the blood around the body, move muscles and release hormones; if you don’t get enough of it in your diet, it will be taken from your bones.
Calcium is associated with dairy products, but that’s not the only food you will find it in:
- Rhubarb – this underappreciated vegetable has a number of health benefits, including prebiotic fibre, calcium and vitamin K
- Yoghurt – yes, it’s an obvious source of calcium, but it’s also one of the easiest to integrate into your life, especially during breakfast
- Almonds – these are the nuts with the highest calcium content, while also containing magnesium and vitamin E
We love this overnight oats recipe from Sophie Godwin, which is easily adaptable to contain any number of healthy ingredients tailored to your specific health needs.
The natural yoghurt and almond nut butter are fantastic sources of calcium, and you can boost your omega-3 intake by adding flax and chia seeds. Finish it off with a handful of fresh fruit, such as blueberries and raspberries, for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s a filling breakfast that can be prepared the night before for those on the go.
Overnight oats – serves 1
- Prep time: 10 mins
- ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
- 50g rolled porridge oats
- 2 tbsp natural yogurt
- 50g mixed berries
- drizzle of honey
- ½ tbsp nut butter (we used almond)
- The night before serving, stir the cinnamon and 100ml water (or milk) into your oats with a pinch of salt.
- The next day, loosen with a little more water (or milk) if needed. Top with the yogurt, berries, a drizzle of honey and the nut butter.
Living with back pain
At To Better Days we know that it can be extremely tough to cope with chronic back pain, especially when it affects your everyday life. Making small changes towards a balanced, healthy diet with limited processed foods could help to reduce inflammation and give your body the vitamins and minerals it needs to work efficiently.
The foods recommended here are not a fix-all solution, but every person’s body works differently – maybe a dietary change could help you manage your pain.
Have you experienced an improvement in your back pain as a result of a change in your diet? Let us know in the comments below!