In addition to a comprehensive treatment plan that includes exercise and a combination of therapies that could include minimally-invasive interventions and over-the-counter or prescription medications, your doctor may prescribe a pain-healthy diet for your chronic pain. What, exactly, is a pain-healthy diet? In this edition of Eat This, Not That, we take a look at easy and delicious swaps for your favorite foods to help fight inflammation and relieve pain.
Instead of: Margarine or vegetable oil
We have heard for many years that butter will be the death of us, so we switched to margarine or vegetable oil. Trouble is, margarine isn’t really any better for you, and neither is vegetable oil. Even if we have cut down on frying or sautéing, it doesn’t seem like there is really any flavorful, healthy substitute for butter.
Try: Olive oil or ghee
Not only is there one good substitute for butter, but there are two. Olive oil is a staple part of a heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. It comes in different intensities of flavor, from rich, fruity extra virgin olive oil, good for when you want to add flavor, to a lighter version for salad dressings and sautéing.
Ghee is also known as clarified or drawn butter. Essentially, butter is heated slowly and cooked until the milk solids sink to the bottom of the pan and what remains is the fat alone. According to a recent study, even though ghee is 100% fat and is saturated, it does not have the same negative effect on cardiovascular health as straight butter:
“Animal studies have demonstrated many beneficial effects of ghee, including dose-dependent decreases in serum total cholesterol, low density lipoprotein (LDL), very low density lipoprotein (VLDL), and triglycerides; decreased liver total cholesterol, triglycerides, and cholesterol esters…”
Does this mean that you should take spoonfuls of ghee or olive oil with every meal? Of course not. But ghee and olive oil can be healthier substitutes that support a pain-healthy diet.
Instead of: Red meat
Ah, steak. Burgers. MEAT. As the summer winds down, we can still smell the delightful aromas of the grill wafting on the late afternoon air. Nothing says “cookout” like a grill full of red meat. But red meat, at least the kind farmed in large batches on factory farms, is full of heart-damaging cholesterol. Excess consumption of red meat is linked to health conditions from obesity to Type 2 diabetes. You aren’t quite ready to go vegetarian, but chicken is getting a little boring.
Try: A bounty from the sea
Most of the pain-healthy diets above emphasize consumption of oily fish like tuna, salmon, and mackerel in addition to other fruits of the sea. These types of fish contain heart healthy omega 3s that not only reduce your risk of heart conditions and Type 2 diabetes but can also decrease pain-causing inflammation in the body. Most of these fish can still be grilled, giving you the same smoky satisfaction of cooking in the great outdoors. For the most benefit, check with Monterey Bay Aquarium’s seafood guide for the healthiest options to buy (for you and the environment).
Instead of: Refined grains and flours
It’s all over the news: white flour is bad for your waistline. Turns out, highly processed grains can also be contributing to inflammation in the body. But you and your family love soft breads made with white flour, and crackers are a staple snack in your house.
Try: Whole grains
Whole grains have a higher level of fiber that has been proven to reduce levels of C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is a marker of inflammation in the blood, a marker that can be increased by over consumption of processed grains. Today’s whole grain breads are not the hard, dry loaves that might have been on your grandmother’s table. Soft wheat bread and flavorful whole-grain crackers are readily available in supermarkets all across the U.S.
Buyer beware, though: products labeled “whole grain” may be just as unhealthy as refined white flour. Read labels carefully and monitor levels of sugar, additives, and preservatives. If you are a baker, make your own whole-grain breads to know exactly what it is you are eating.
Instead of: Romaine and iceberg lettuce
Salads are good for you, right? And since it’s the summer, now is a great time to bump up your vegetable consumption with even more of them. You like the crunchy texture of iceberg lettuce, so that makes up the bulk of your salad bowl.
But iceberg lettuce is mostly water and has very few nutrients. Romaine is not much better. It’s salad, though, right? So isn’t it all the same?
Try: Dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables
Eating more vegetables is always better than eating fewer, but make your veggie consumption pay off with pain-healthy benefits by choosing well. Dark, leafy greens like kale, collard greens, and spinach offer protection against cytokines, a compound that causes inflammation in the body. Cytokines are also present in large amounts in people who suffer from depression, so consuming more leafy greens protects the body from inflammation and can help protect the mind from depression. Broccoli is another great veggie with anti-inflammatory properties related to reduction in cytokines.
If it’s the texture and crunch of the iceberg lettuce you like, try a raw kale salad with cranberries and nuts for an additional anti-inflammatory boost. You can also bake or grill broccoli tossed in olive oil and lightly salted until just tender-crisp to give your teeth something else to sink into.
Instead of: Ice cream
What’s dinner without a little sweet treat at the end? But the ice cream man’s truck is filled with treats that could lead to a pain flare-up. Many people with pain conditions find that dairy just makes their pain intensify.
Try: Dark chocolate sorbet
We’ve all heard that dark chocolate is good for your heart, but new research has found that the good bacteria in your gut breaks dark chocolate down in such a way that decreases inflammation in the body. So celebrate the last days of summer with a pain-healthy dark chocolate sorbet! This recipe is also gluten-free (good for those who find that gluten causes inflammation) and can also be made with less sugar or a dash of peppermint extract.
Eating a pain-healthy diet can be delicious and easy. What are your favorite pain-healthy substitutions?