How changing your diet can help you combat low back pain
New research suggests that more vegetables and less refined oil in your diet may help with low back pain.
The research, presented at the February 2021 Association of Academic Physiatrists (AAP) digital conference, found a link between what people ate and their chances of having low back pain.
“Our findings suggest that diets that are more anti-inflammatory tend to be better for back pain,” says Valerio Tonelli Enrico, a physical therapist, research assistant, and doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh, who presented the findings. “An anti-inflammatory diet would include whole grains and lots of fruits and vegetables — similar to the Mediterranean diet,” Tonelli Enrico says.
Chronic Inflammation, the dangerous kind
Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing: Acute inflammation is actually an important immune response that helps heal injuries or fight illness. But chronic inflammation — inflammation that occurs in healthy tissues or that lasts for months or years — can cause damage and contribute to many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Chronic inflammation can also play a role in conditions such as arthritis or back pain.
A study conducted by the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) in 2004 on 3,966 subjects found links between Low Back Pain and a proinflammatory diet.
What Is a Pro-Inflammatory Diet?
According to Ryanne Lachman, RDN, a registered dietitian with the Center for Functional Medicine, Ohio, “A diet where we consume mainly refined grains that are too easily absorbed and create lingering blood sugar problems and weight gain”. Basically sodas, fruit juices, trans fats, and meat from grain-fed animals can be pro-inflammatory as well, says Lachman
“One source of inflammation that I think a lot of people don’t realize are refined vegetable oils such as soybean oil, vegetable oil, and corn oil. They’ve all gone through a high level of processing, and they contain omega-6 fats which are inherently pro-inflammatory,” she says. These oils are not only used in cooking, but often used in baked goods such as cookies. “Some of these things aren’t outright harmful in small doses, but when we have them embedded in every product, every processed food, and every restaurant uses them, that’s when chronic inflammation can ensue — from chronic exposure,” says Lachman.
Reducing Inflammation in your Diet
Following an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t just about eliminating foods that cause inflammation, says Lachman. “We also need to eat enough of the kinds of foods that will reduce the triggers for inflammation.”
•Eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables. “If pain reduction is the primary goal, eating 4 to 6 cups of colorful vegetables and fruits without any added sugars will essentially guarantee a supply of anti-inflammatory nutrients, along with many other benefits,” says Lachman. “This should mostly be veggies, especially things in the cruciferous family such as watercress, broccoli, and arugula; they have really strong anti-inflammatory benefits,” she adds.
• Consuming more omega-3s can help offset omega-6s. “I suggest steering clear of refined oils altogether, but increasing omega-3s can help provide a more anti-inflammatory balance of those oils,” says Lachman. Research, including a paper published in November 2018 in the BMJ, shows that increasing omega-3 consumption while reducing omega-6 consumption reduces the inflammatory response of a high-fat meal. “My suggestions for upping omega-3 intake would include cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, and cod. Plant-based options can include olive oil, hemp, flax, or chia seeds,” says Lachman.
• Prepare foods with anti-inflammatory spices. Spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and cayenne can be used to decrease inflammation, as well. Turmeric is another good example of this; you can use it in savory foods or add it to a smoothie, says Lachman.
The way you cook certain foods can also worsen inflammation. A 2017 metaanalysis published in Scientific Reports found that frying, roasting, microwaving, searing, or grilling meats, fish, and eggs produces compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
Although your body produces AGEs naturally and they are found in raw animal products, cooking, especially at high temperatures, forms new AGEs. High levels of the compounds in tissues and blood can trigger an inflammatory response and are suspected to increase inflammation in the body.
To limit this effect, try preparing meat dishes that call for steaming, simmering, or braising, and cut down on processed foods, which have often been exposed to a high cooking temperature to increase their shelf life, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Becky Upham consultant & writer for Everyday Health, February 22, 2021