In the grip of constant pain, it can be hard to make good food choices. Dietitian Joanna Baker shows how eating better can actually help reduce chronic pain.
What is pain?
Pain is not just a measure of damage coming from your broken arm or the shoulder you strained. Pain is a complex protective mechanism produced in the brain that tells you to stop or change your behaviour. Pain varies between different people and situations.
When pain lasts longer than three months, it’s called chronic pain. It may not be from an injury or a clear cause. Pain can stem from an inflamed and irritated nervous system. Carrying excess weight can also lead to chronic pain, particularly
lower back pain.
- What we want to eat
- What we can eat
- The type of food our body needs
Experiencing pain interferes with simple activities like grocery shopping or preparing meals.
It can affect your appetite, too. And when the pain becomes long term, it is easy to let healthy eating habits slip. But watching what you eat when you have chronic pain is especially important, as it can boost your energy, improve your mood and, yes, even reduce your pain. So follow these five simple strategies.
1. Eat veges and fish for less pain
Omega-3 fats are well known for their anti-inflammatory qualities. Research has found that when people eat more of these healthy fats, they report reduced pain and use less pain medication.
Additionally, enjoying foods high in omega 3s, along with plenty of fruit and vegetables, is linked to improved mood and better mental health.
Easy tips to try
- Eat oily fish such as salmon or sardines two to three times per week.
- Add one tablespoon of chia or flaxseeds (linseeds) to cereal, yoghurt or smoothies. You’ll find these in the health food aisle of the supermarket.
- Snack on 1/4 cup of walnuts.
- Cook with canola or flaxseed oil.
- Enjoy five serves of vegetables and two serves of fruit each day.
2. Find healthy shortcuts to help
When it hurts to move, you don’t want to be carrying heavy groceries or standing up chopping vegetables. So, convenience foods and takeaways can be an easy way out. But these can be lacking in important nutrients and are often high in kilojoules, leading to weight gain.
Easy tips to try
- Buy cut or frozen veges or meat. Choose meat that’s already been cut into cubes or strips.
- Get groceries delivered or ask friends and family to shop for you. Or ask them to prepare healthy meals for you from time to time.
- Cook extra portions when you do feel well, and freeze leftovers for those ‘bad’ days.
- Add half a plate of veges to your meals. They’re loaded with fibre and health-giving antioxidants.
- Have healthy snacks such as nuts, yoghurt and fruit handy. Avoid stocking your pantry with biscuits and crisps that don’t provide you with any valuable nutrition.
3. Be smart about sleep
Pain keeps people awake at night. Unfortunately, poor sleep upsets your hormone balance and can increase your hunger levels and desire for foods like chips, chocolate or biscuits. When you’re tired, you are more likely to use food or caffeine to stay awake, and less likely to plan, shop, cook or exercise. Here are some simple things to get you to sleep a little easier.
Easy tips to try
- Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages such as tea or coffee in the afternoon.
- Avoid eating two hours before going to bed.
- Set a bed time that is early enough to get eight hours of sleep, and make it a regular habit with the same sleep and wake times each day.
- Use the hour before going to bed to wind down and relax. Try to avoid screen time such as watching TV or looking at a mobile phone or tablet.
4. Manage your meds
Being in severe pain can often affect your appetite, resulting in extreme weight loss. Some pain medications can also have this effect. So, if you are losing a lot of weight, it’s important to focus on having regular, small, nourishing meals and snacks.
Easy tips to try
- Consider eating six smaller meals rather than three large ones each day.
- Include muscle-building protein at every meal or snack, eg. palm-size chicken piece, tub of yoghurt or 30g of mixed nuts.
- If you experience constipation, nausea or reflux, ask your doctor about alternative medications or strategies that can help.
5. Watch your weight
If you’re overweight, losing weight can help relieve pain, especially if the pain affects your joints. Adding a little extra movement throughout your day can help you lose weight in a gradual, sustained way which will have long-term benefits for your chronic pain.
Easy tips to try
- Choose times in the day when you’re in less pain (perhaps the middle of the day) to start doing short bursts of activity, such as walking up and down stairs, or around the block. Make this a regular part of your day and increase it as pain allows. This will boost your metabolism, help shift that weight, and elevate your mood.
- Eat nourishing meals and snacks, including some of the tips we’ve outlined, to help boost your energy and feel motivated to be active.
Easy meal ideas to help ease your pain
Breakfast: Porridge with yoghurt and 1 tablespoon flaxseeds (linseeds)
Snack: 1/4 cup walnuts and 1 piece fruit
Lunch: Grilled chicken with salad and 2 slices soy and linseed bread
Snack: Smoothie with berries and 1 tablespoon chia seeds
Dinner: Salmon with veges and quinoa
Eating well when you’re in pain may be a struggle, but fuelling your body with healthy food can protect you from further pain and potential illness. It may be worth seeing a dietitian or registered nutritionist for individualised advice about your diet and health.
Article sources and references
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