Foods that Can Make Back Pain Problems Worse

November 13, 2016


Health and Recovery


Meghan Gilmour

Ranging from slight discomfort to downright agony, back pain is a common complaint. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 13.6% of the population currently suffers from some type of back problem, with an estimated 70% to 90% of Australians likely to experience back pain their lifetimes.

Some common causes of back pain include poor muscular strength in the posture muscles of the back (primarily the latissimus dorsi and erector spinae muscles), injury, osteoarthritis, and degenerative disc disease, just to name a few. While preventative measures (such as exercising, practicing proper posture, and maintaining a healthy body weight) are the best methods to avoid back pain, proper diet can also help sufferers better manage their symptoms.

Poor food choices can exacerbate back pain, primarily in those suffering from back discomfort caused by inflammation. Inflammation occurs when the body tries to heal itself by bringing an influx of white blood cells, nutrients, and fluids to an injured area.

When this occurs, blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases, causing localized soreness, redness and swelling. Inflammation can be quite painful and may become a chronic complaint in those suffering from back pain caused by osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis (arthritis which causes inflammation of the vertebrae), muscle strain, or injury.

Though inflammation as a response to sudden injury or illness is a necessary part of self-healing, chronic inflammation is not only painful, but can also cause cancer and digestive disorders. Certain foods are known to increase inflammation. Here are some of the primary culprits:

White breads, pastas, crackers, and cereals

White bread causing inflammation

Refined carbohydrates are processed quickly by the body, creating a spike in blood sugar that fuels the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Simply stated, AGEs occur when fats and proteins combine with sugars, creating a substance that promotes inflammation and damages cellular function.

Instead of refined, white carbohydrates, choose whole grain products, such as whole wheat pasta, sprouted grain breads, and cereals derived from oats, barley, or amaranth.

Sodas, cookies, cakes, and pies

Cakes causing inflammation and pain

Cookies, cakes, and pies are oh-so-tasty, but foods containing processed sugar increase the presence of inflammation-producing cytokines in the body. (Cytokines are molecules that allow immune cells to communicate with one another). Avoiding soda, choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate, and baking with fruit juice or honey are just a few ways to reduce processed sugar intake.

Beef, lamb, veal, and bison

Meat on a barbeque

Foods high in saturated fats promote inflammation in the body’s fat stores, which can increase symptoms of arthritis. Scientists believe this inflammation is a by-product of increased white blood cell production in response to a high intake of saturated fats. Consider reducing your consumption of red meat to once per week and replacing your protein intake with poultry or fatty fish high in omega-3s (such as salmon, tuna, and sardines), as omega-3s may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Chips, Ccrackers, and other “FrankenFoods”

Processed snack foods containing trans fats are primary promoters of inflammation. Artificial trans fats (identified on food labels as “partially-hydrogenated oils) are created when unsaturated (liquid) fats are pumped with hydrogen, rendering them solid and more shelf-stable.

Unfortunately, this process creates an inflammation-promoting ingredient. It should be noted that manufacturers are not currently required to expressly identify trans fats on their labels. However, avoiding products with “partially-hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated” ingredients can help greatly reduce trans fat intake.

Soy sauce and processed Asian foods

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is identified on food labels as “Flavor Enhancer (MSG)” or “Flavor Enhancer (621). This inflammation-promoting chemical is most often found in soy sauce, processed Asian cuisine, deli meats, salad dressings, and fast foods. Avoid MSG by studying food labels. Additionally, restaurants are not required to label their foods, so make it a habit to inquire about the establishment’s use of this chemical.

Beer, wine, vodka, and other alcoholic beverages

Beer in a pint glass

Alcohol consumption places undue stress on the liver, as this filtering organ works overtime to rid the body of alcohol as quickly as possible. This filtering process can promote inflammation, particularly when too much alcohol is consumed during a short period. To avoid the negative effects of alcohol, limit yourself to no more than one drink per day.

This technical jargon may sound overwhelming, but the secret to reducing inflammation is quite simple: reduce your intake of processed foods and alcohol while increasing your consumption of healthy vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins (such as fish and poultry).

Not only will a diet rich in whole, natural foods lessen inflammation, but will also assist in the maintenance of a healthy weight, another key component to back health. So put down that bag of chips and reach for an apple. Your back will thank you!

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2. Low back pain fact sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke Website. Published December 2014. Accessed April 8, 2016.

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4. 8 food ingredients that can cause inflammation. Arthritis Foundation Website. Accessed April 8, 2016.

5. Zanteson L. Advanced glycation end products. Today’s Dietitian. Mar 2014;16(3):10-10.

6. Chait A, Kim F. Saturated fatty acids and inflammation: Who pays the toll? Arterioscl Throm Vas. 2010;30:692-693.

7. What you eat can fuel or cool inflammation, a key driver of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Harvard Medical School Website. Updated February 2007. Accessed April 8, 2016.

8. Trans fatty acids. Food Standards Australia New Zealand Website. Published June 2015. Accessed April 8, 2016.

Meghan Gilmour

ACE-certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Nutrition Coach, Blogger. Qualified with Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science & Master of Science in Applied Nutrition (Concentration in Fitness and Nutrition).