Meal consequences: Poor diet can contribute to chronic pain

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Woman holding and making choice between red apple and calorie bomb donut on gray background.Healthy eating and Junk food concept

Most adults have experienced a food hangover after indulging in meals loaded with saturated fat and sugar.

That uncomfortable bloated, “Why did I do that?” feeling actually causes inflammation within the body and people who suffer from chronic pain might want to think twice before consuming hot dogs, potato chips and cans of soda this summer.

“We don’t have any studies that we can cite, but there are plenty of anecdotal and personal

experiences to attest to poor diet and physical pain,” said Heritage Health’s Dr. Gayle Smith. “The simple observation of ‘I feel terrible after I eat that’ is all the data you really need to know as to whether or not it is a good for you to eat.”

An estimated 43 percent of Americans report having some sort of chronic pain, which is on par with Italy or France; however, Americans take between six and eight times more narcotics and have lower quality of life scores.

“Clearly, opiates are not benefiting us in the long term,” said Dr. Smith. “It is important to note that opiates change the brain’s response to injury and can confuse pain signaling and processing, often leading to increased pain level in as little as a few days.  At the same time, our culture makes it difficult for patients with chronic pain to function meaningfully in society. We often feel if a person feels pain it is because of their own weakness or personal failing which only adds to the emotional burden of chronic pain, often worsening symptoms.”

In addition to prescription opioids, many people medicate their emotional pain with “comfort food.” However, the irony of that term is that comfort foods (ex. pasta, bread, cookies) actually cause inflammation, which is an immune system response, and over time it takes a toll.

“Chronic inflammation happens when the body is constantly stressed, and the immune system is on overdrive,” said Tarah Boerner, a Registered Dietitian with Heritage Health. “This can create damage, which can be attributed to diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other neurological issues.”

Foods that can cause inflammation include: refined/processed carbohydrates (white bread and pastries), soda, processed red meat, and fried foods.

Boerner recommends people focus on eating foods with higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids by adding fish at least twice a week and eating foods high in antioxidants.

“Eat fruits and vegetables with a variety of color,” she said. “Spinach, kale, broccoli, cabbage, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, peppers, carrots, and citrus are great choices. You can up your fiber content with whole grains and beans. Add a handful of nuts per day and focus on heart-healthier fats such as olive oil and avocados to improve your diet.”

Still not convinced?

“If you’re not sure if foods affect your pain level, try a few days on a whole foods diet. Summer is the perfect time to enjoy fresh produce and local meats from your farmers’ market,” said Dr. Smith. “If a few days on nature’s bounty improves your symptoms, you have your answer! Most people notice, and notice quickly, increased energy, decreased pain, and stiffness when adhering to a whole foods diet or clean eating.”

For more information about nutrition or pain management, contact Heritage Health at (208) 625-5250.

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