If you have chronic pain, you may feel so tired and sore that you can't even think about preparing a healthy meal. Perhaps you relate to food in terms of how it affects your weight. You might choose foods to lower the risk of developing diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancer. However, good nutrition keeps your body healthy and can help manage or reduce the burden of chronic pain. Using these techniques, you can start on the road to healthier eating, and continue even when pain flares.
The last thing most people want to do during a flare-up is to think about what to make for dinner. Having a simple plan ahead of time can help you through difficult days. To take the pressure off, have available healthy snacks like cut vegetables and fruit, yogurt, and frozen portions of meals like chili, casseroles or stews. Prepared ahead, these foods can be ready to eat in minutes. Remember, meals do not have to be fancy to be healthy. It is fine to have scrambled eggs, toast and fruit for dinner if that is what works!
Ask for help. Whether it comes from family, friends, neighbours, or a local food delivery service, extra support can have a big impact on your healthy eating. Organizations like Meals on Wheels deliver healthy food right to your door. They can be an affordable option for people living with pain or other chronic conditions.
Do not skip meals. Providing your body with consistent fuel – even just a snack every few hours – maintains your energy levels. Skipping meals can result in overeating at the next meal, or reaching for a 'quick fix' because energy levels have dropped. Unfortunately, most quick fixes are packaged and processed foods, high in calories and low in nutrients. Healthy snacks can be quick too. Try yogurt and fruit, crackers and cheese, or vegetables and dip. If you do not have the energy to eat a full meal, a balanced snack will help tide you over.
Fresh foods do not have a lot of (if any) added ingredients and are usually less expensive and healthier than packaged and processed foods. Remember, you will find fresh foods like vegetables, fruit, meat, grain and milk products around the outside walls of the grocery store – not in the aisles.
Getting enough fluids is essential to preventing constipation, a common side effect of many pain medications. Staying hydrated also makes a big difference to your energy level. Women need eight to ten cups of fluid a day, men ten to twelve cups. Count fluid from water, all beverages (except alcohol), soups and water contained in vegetables and fruit.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for normal growth and development. Awareness of their other health benefits is increasing. Research suggests that the long chain Omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA) have anti-inflammatory effects. Evidence suggests that taking Omega-3 fats may help reduce the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3 fats are found in fish, some nuts (walnuts are best), and fortified products like certain brands of eggs, milk and bread. Omega-3 supplements can be found at your pharmacy. If you want to supplement with Omega-3, talk first with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure it is safe.
At this time, no consistent evidence proves that vitamin or mineral supplements help relieve pain. A multivitamin does not hurt, but the best way to be sure you get the right balance of nutrients is to follow Canada's Food Guide. Remember to speak with your doctor or pharmacist about possible interactions with prescription medication before adding a specific supplement.
If you find that you feel more tired, achy or unwell after eating certain foods, listen to the messages your body is sending. Keep a food diary to track what you eat and how you feel (emotionally and physically) to help you decode the connections. Many people who keep a food diary can identify 'trigger' foods that cause a flare-up or make pain worse.
Processed and packaged foods are likely to have added fat, salt, sugar and preservatives. These foods appeal because they are quick and easy, but are not the healthiest choices. They tend to be more expensive too. Many people with chronic pain find they are sensitive to additives and preservatives found in packaged and processed foods. Of course, very few people can completely avoid all processed foods. You do not have to ban them entirely – just use them in moderation.
Though there are few high-quality scientific studies of specific nutrients and chronic pain, some people report more pain after having caffeine, MSG (monosodium glutamate) and aspartame. Caffeine is found in regular coffee, tea, many soft drinks, energy drinks, and chocolate. MSG is often added as a flavour enhancer. Aspartame is an artificial sweetener found in diet pops and many 'low calorie' or 'reduced sugar' foods. Read the ingredient list as you shop to decide whether foods contain ingredients that may affect your symptoms.
Many people feel overwhelmed at the prospect of overhauling their diet. The key to success involves making small changes that you can stick to. Simply becoming aware of how foods and ingredients affect your body and pain levels may help you feel better. Eat regularly and drink plenty of fluids to maintain your energy levels, even during flare-ups.