Stop Chronic Pain by Changing What's on Your Plate

When you are in pain, what’s so bad about a little comfort food? Well, nothing, as long as you eat it in moderation. Problems arise, however, when you overindulge in junk food. How do you know what to eat if you have chronic pain? Let’s start with what not to eat.

A man eating a doughnut outside a food truck

Cultura RM Exclusive / Charles Knox

What You Should Not Eat 

Today, most Americans consume more calories than they actually need. Many of the foods you choose may also be high in unfavorable ingredients, such as saturated fats, sugar, and salt. A diet high in calories and concentrated fats not only makes us more prone to obesity but may actually increase the intensity of our chronic pain. A diet deficient in fruits and vegetables has been suggested to increase inflammation in the body, which can be of particular concern if you have muscular or joint pain. For those with arthritis, junk foods (which are high in calories) can be double trouble because extra weight also increases pressure on joints.

Excess Weight, Extra Pain 

Even if your chronic pain condition is not made worse by inflammation, researchers have found that people with chronic pain who are also overweight tend to report more severe pain levels than those who maintain a healthier size. Does all of this mean you have to go on a strict diet? Maybe not, but you should monitor your weight and your pain to be sure you at least stop gaining weight and to make sure your pain does not worsen.

Basic Guidelines for Healthy Eating

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables, especially leafy greens and fresh fruits. Frozen varieties are also good. Opt for cans only as a last resort, as they are likely to have more sodium and less nutrition than their fresh or frozen counterparts.
  • Eat more beans and whole grains. Toss some chickpeas on a salad, switch from white to wheat bread or start using whole grain pasta. Little changes to your daily foods can make a big difference.
  • Cut out refined foods, such as those with added sugar and those that are processed. Instead of a breakfast bar, have wheat toast with strawberry preserves. Opt for nutrient-dense food in place of empty calories.
  • Drink more water. Unlike soda or juice, water will keep you hydrated without adding extra calories. Even though diet cola is low-cal or calorie-free, it is often packed with sodium and caffeine. If you can’t stomach plain water, try adding lemon or cucumber slices. You can use powdered flavorings, but be sure to keep an eye on their sodium levels.

If you suffer from other medical conditions in addition to your chronic pain, a healthy diet is even more important. Keep in mind that if you have a specialized diet, such as one for diabetes or a heart condition, you should follow the guidelines set out by your healthcare provider or nutritionist. If you are not sure where to begin, make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Healthy eating is a step in the right direction when you are living with chronic pain.

For more great advice on a nutritional plan for chronic pain, check out this article about anti-inflammatory foods by Verywell's Guide to Nutrition.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Erica Jacques
Erica Jacques, OT, is a board-certified occupational therapist at a level one trauma center.