Eat Your Way to a Better Back

By Nicolette M. Pace MS, RD, CDE, CDN, CFCS

There’s no disputing the fact the back problems in the U.S. are more and more common. In fact its almost inevitable that you will have some issue with your back at some point in your life.

You may experience an injury or strain or be affected purely by age.  As you get older, the cartilage in your spine naturally thins putting more pressure on the joints. If you have a weight problem it will be even worse. The extra load on your back and lower limbs is generally four times your weight.

What usually comes with being overweight is increased body fat.  Fat tissue is a resevoir for inflammation. It houses proteins that help regulate the immune system. This can wreck havoc on your body. If you couple all of this to an inactive lifestyle, you can easily see why back problems are so widespread.

The price tag for back problems has been growing and is estimated to be approaching 90 billion dollars annually. Most of this is going for diagnostic testing, expensive surgeries and medications. All this money hasn’t necessarily alleviated our problem. It is worrisome to think that one in five persons who have had back surgery will likely need another within 10 years.  Orthopaedic surgeons advise exhausting all available means before resorting to invasive procedures.

The great news is that for millions of Americans who suffer from back pain, the answer may very well be in your refrigerator not the medicine cabinet.

Can you eat your way to a better back?  More and more research is indicating yes. Certain foods can be natural ways to improve pain and decrease inflammation.  This is a natural, front line defense. Foods that can help can be categorized as those that act as anti-oxidants, are pain blockers, have hormone-like effects or that lead to improved metabolism, weight loss and stronger bones.

These superfoods are specific for reducing inflammation and helping to give pain relief.  They all contain biologically active compounds that have been shown in research to be associated with a decrease in inflammatory protein markers in the body.

Fundamental to this diet is the incorporation of more plant foods. Specifically, berries, leafy greens and other colorful fruits and vegetables. The activity in these plants comes from flavinoid and carotenoid components that act as free radical scavengers to fight off cell damage.

Overall, polyphenols are a class of plant chemicals help protect our bodies. They specifically give a plant its color and flavor. When you see fruits or vegetables that are red, purple or blue, know that the pigment anthocyanin is responsible.  As it turns out, this is a powerful pain interceptor.  Its action works much the same as prescription and over the counter medications that we take.

These healing foods include all types of berries and now recently, the benefits of cherries have been publicized so add them to the growing list.   Research on the tart cherry variety is especially encouraging as it has even more unique properties.  It not only has very high oxygen radical fighting capacity which is on par with the popular Acai berry, but contains other chemicals important for pain and sleep.  But unlike the Acai, cherries are locally produced so they are available fresh in season or preserved effectively from drying or freezing.

Other foods with not only anti-oxidant benefits are ones that can produce postive hormone-like effects. These include nuts, olives, avocado, soy and marine fish. These plant based fats help to balance the body’s response to inflammation.

Nuts are complex fats. They contain omega 3, fiber and magnesium. Eating nuts is associated with lowered inflammation protein markers. People with diabetes, heart disease and arthritis can especially benefit. Nuts are not only inflammation reducing but are associated with an improvement in inflammation fighting.

Olives contain not only anti-oxidants but a substance called oleocanthal. This is yet another plant chemical that can bring pain relief. Marine fish is a well known source of omega 3 but is also one of the few natural food sources of vitamin D.  A deficiency of this vitamin (which acts like a hormone) is estimated to be present in three quarters of our population.  Soy is a complete, lower calorie protein and its plant chemical profile works to balance out metabolism from its hormonal effects.

Recommendations include substituting plant fats for high fat animal products which can cause more inflammation.  In addtition, use fruits more liberally and as substitutes for high sugar choices. Choose plant starches (potatoes, root vegetables, beans,  corn,  peas, whole grains)  as substitutes for excess refined starches.

Remember this is an evolving area of research. Compounds are continually being discovered to see how they work.   Each of the plant foods enjoy more than one beneficial quality plus the interaction between them can be even more powerful.  This area of nutrition research is emerging and science will lead to new information so don’t discriminate.

Build a better diet and stay with it. Results may not be as immediate as popping a pill but over time pain relief and correcting the underlying problem can occur. You will notice weight loss, improvements in your blood sugar and blood fat levels. This will decrese the inflammation load, improve  your symptoms and bring about fundamentally good health.

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