Eating well supports your nervous and immune systems to function well and in turn help with persistent pain. Good nutrition can also improve our mental health and prevent weight gain to lighten the load on painful joints and limbs.
Chronic pain is often associated with inflammation in the body. Eating foods that are anti-inflammatory may help reduce inflammation and alleviate pain.
This includes eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and nuts.
Persistent pain can influence our food choices in many ways. It may be more difficult to get to the supermarket or prepare food. Your food choices may be influenced by changes in employment or feelings of frustration and anxiety, while some pain medications can alter gut activity.
Pain can also affect sleep leading to more awake time and more time available to eat. Poor sleep increases fatigue and can affect our decision making meaning we have less energy to prepare and cook food and are more likely to choose foods that are high in fat and sugar.
The good news is that making a few simple changes to what you eat can lead to improved health and better management of pain. Below are a few ideas to help – don’t try all of the suggestions at once. Make one or two small changes and give yourself time to practice them so they turn into new habits.
Top Tips for eating well with persistent pain
Top up your fuel tank regularly – aim to have three meals each day so that your body has the energy to move and think. Missing meals and being over hungry can lead to eating more than we need.
- Eating something is better than having nothing – if you are not a breakfast fan, start with something small (a glass of milk, some yoghurt, a handful of nuts) and add a piece of fruit.
Include fruits and vegetables at each meal – the antioxidants in colourful fruit and veges help to manage inflammation. They also fill us up and reduce hunger.
- Eat the rainbow to get lots of variety – don’t forget the blue and purple ones.
- Include some fruit and/or vege at breakfast (avocado, tomatoes, and spinach are great examples) and keep them close by for a quick snack.
- Frozen vegetables are a good alternative if you have reduced mobility or find it difficult to prepare food. They can also be more cost-effective as there is little waste.
- Cover half your plate with vegetables at lunch and dinner.
- Canned fruit and veges can also be useful but look for ones that are canned in juice or spring water to reduce the amount of sugar and salt.
- Choose two or three different fruits each week but only buy enough for 3 or 4 serves of each so that they don’t go to waste.
Note: Boil frozen berries before eating if they have come from outside Aotearoa New Zealand.
Choose foods in their ‘whole’ form – whole foods are those that are close to their original form.
- Avoid foods that have been highly processed. Highly processed foods have a lot of added fat and sugar which can increase inflammation and contribute to weight gain. These same foods often have low levels of healthful nutrients such as vitamins and minerals.
- Choose water or low-fat milk instead of sugary drinks.
- Try popcorn, fruit, vegetable sticks or low-fat yoghurt for snacks.
- Limit your intake of sweets, biscuits, cakes, pies, instant noodles and chips.
Eat foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids – these also help to reduce inflammation. They are found in both fresh and canned oily fish (e.g. salmon and sardines) as well as some nuts and seeds, such as chia and linseeds (flaxseed), walnuts and canola oil.
- Aim for a minimum of 2 serves of oily fish per week – this can be either fresh or canned.
- Include nuts* and seeds in smoothies, baking and salads or try a small handful of as a snack.
*raw nuts are the best choice
A note about Fish oil supplements: it is best to get omega-3 fatty acids from food. If you do not eat any fish, then a supplement may be a suitable alternative. If you take blood thinning medications – check with your doctor before taking fish oil supplements.
Fish oil supplements are not regulated in New Zealand and the omega-3 content can vary widely. Fish oil supplements contain a combination of EPA and DHA (two types of omega-3). If you opt to take fish oil supplements aim for a good quality brand that contains a high dose of omega 3 with a ratio of EPA/DHA ≥1.5.
Limit foods that are high in saturated and trans fats – these can contribute to inflammation in the body and to weight gain, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Use canola and olive oil products instead of butter and coconut oils
- Chooses low fat dairy products
- Trim the fat from meat and chicken
- Avoid processed meats such as bacon, salami and sausages
- Include fish and vegetable proteins such as nuts, beans, and lentils
Making sound nutrition choices is something you can do to take control of your health and manage persistent pain. If you would like some practical help changing what you eat, contact our Clinic in the Cloud dietitians who can support you to develop a personalised nutrition plan that helps to alleviate your pain symptoms.
Sue MacDonell, PhD
New Zealand Registered Dietitian
TBI Health Dietitian Services
Learn more about TBI Health Dietitian Services, and how you can book an appointment with our Dietitian here.
Brain K, Burrows TL, Bruggink L, Malfliet A, Hayes C, Hodson FJ, et al. Diet and Chronic Non-Cancer Pain: The State of the Art and Future Directions. J Clin Med. 2021;10(21).
Fritsche KL. The science of fatty acids and inflammation. Adv Nutr. 2015 May 15;6(3):293S-301S.
Health Navigator New Zealand. Omega 3 and fish oil supplements (accessed 14th March 2023) www.healthnavigator.org.nz/medicines/o/omega-3-and-fish-oil-supplements/
Ministry of Health. (2021) Healthy eating active living. Available from: www.healthed.govt.nz