Many Americans stumble out of bed in the morning to the sound of the alarm clock with achiness and stiffness in joints and muscles and are slow to move. Are you like so many Americans who wonder how to exit the rollercoaster of daily highs and lows that often begins with a cup of coffee (with sugar and flavored creamer) and the standard bagel, donut or pastry? This sugar and caffeine jolt is the mainstay of the Standard American Diet (SAD) for many.
This may sound similar since the SAD includes mostly dairy, sugar, and gluten. (1) In 2005, a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that only ¼ of Americans ate a piece of fruit each day, and just 1 in 10 ate the recommended number of vegetables. Perhaps our priorities on what we choose to eat are slightly out of balance? (OR … Perhaps our food choices are slightly out of balance?) And that is not the only thing out of balance – the scales don’t display what most of us want them to, with the vast majority of Americans being overweight or obese from the over-consumption of carbohydrates and sugary beverages. (2)
Does this come as a surprise to you, that bagels and coffee are not the ultimate meal your body is seeking each morning? Or that the lack of fruit and vegetables in your daily diet, even though your total calorie intake might be within range, is contributing to your pain? If this is news to you, don’t be worried, because I will explain how the typical daily diet is holding you back from the pain-free life you desire. Let’s look at a few of the damaging dietary habits most Americans have that are keeping them from reaching their goals. Do you identify with any of these?
Eating processed food
For many Americans, processed foods are the core staples in the pantry. But you may wonder, what exactly is a processed food? In a nutshell, a processed food is one that has been altered from its natural state. When a food is altered from its original form, we won’t benefit as much from it. These types of foods are often stripped of vitamins, minerals, and fiber during processing, resulting in a product that gives us empty calories.
Any substance that is added to a food for the purpose of enhancing flavor or appearance, or to preserve it, is classified as a food additive. We find these foods in the center aisles of the grocery store, packaged in boxes, bags, bottles or cans, and often have a long list of ingredients, many of which cannot be easily pronounced. Oh, and they have a long shelf-life, too! Why do they last longer than an apple or fresh chicken breast? Processed foods contain additives and preservatives that make them addictive, tasty and palatable, well into next year! But what you cannot see is the inflammation they are causing throughout your entire body, leading to pain.
The FDA lists thousands of chemicals and substances that are allowable additives, many of which are implicated in chronic pain. (3) In fact, a 2015 study found that food additives, whether intentional (ie. colors, artificial sweeteners, MSG) or unintentional (ie. BPA, pesticides) create dysregulation in endocrine function, insulin signaling and adipocyte function. (4) These dysregulations lead to chronic inflammation, paving the way for struggles with daily pain. What is the most common additive? MSG (monosodium glutamate) tops the list, and it’s everywhere! MSG is known as an excitotoxin, a molecule that excites neurotransmitters and eventually causes cell death, leading to inflammation and pain. It’s not just in the Chinese food, as many of us believe; food manufacturers add MSG to nearly everything because it tricks our brain into wanting more and more processed, addictive concoctions. Manufacturers use a variety of different chemicals that contain MSG; beware of these hidden sources:
These Always Contain MSG These Often Contain MSG
- Glutamate Maltodextrin
- Glutamic Acid Protein concentrate
- Monosodium Glutamate Protein isolates
- Monopotassium glutamate Anything enzymes
- Natrium glutamate Natural flavorings(s)
There is no artificial sweetener that has its place when you are alleviating your pain naturally. Be aware of the negative health outcomes with the consumption of artificial sweeteners; chronic pain, fibromyalgia, and migraines are at the top of the list. A study published in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy found that patients diagnosed with fibromyalgia saw dramatic decreases in their painful symptoms when they discontinued use of artificial sweeteners. (5) Artificial sweeteners send a signal to the brain to eat more, causing us to crave more sweet foods and drinks, sabotaging weight-loss efforts, and plunging us into the never-ending loop of cravings, yo-yo dieting and inconsistencies on the scale. Be sure to avoid all of the sweeteners. Some common names are aspartame, sucralose, high fructose corn syrup, and saccharin. And trade names include Equal, Nutrasweet, Splenda, and Sweet N’ Low.
I’m here to help you live a pain-free life. What should you do right now?
Four Diet Suggestions For a Pain-Free Life
Eat whole foods
In order to begin alleviating pain, you need to begin with eating real, whole foods. Real foods are grown in a natural life cycle, and not manufactured in a factory. They are free of additives, colorings, and flavors, and should have nothing added or removed when you purchase them. If the food has an ingredient label, it’s probably not in the category of whole food! Strive to shop only in the produce and meat department, and venture into the aisles for whole grains such as brown rice, steel cut oats, or quinoa. Don’t forget to add herbs and spices to your whole foods; naturally, these will add flavor, but they are also full of healing antioxidants and phytonutrients. Use fresh herbs when possible, such as basil, oregano, thyme, garlic, and parsley. You’ll be surprised at how good your food will taste
Ditch the artificial sweeteners
Natural pain relief does not come with the use of artificial sweeteners because the reality is that they increase both pain and inflammation. They also have an effect on the pleasure center of the brain and can be very addictive. If you need a little sweetener, opt for organic stevia. This plant, a native to South America, is 200 times sweeter than sugar, and just a little bit goes a long way! It’s naturally free of calories and carbohydrates, and safe to use as a sugar substitute. The most exciting news is the that organic stevia will not raise your blood sugar. You can find it in a powder or liquid.
Make a switch in beverage choices
Both sugar-sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages will de-rail your progress with reducing pain naturally. Choose to drink more water, sparkling water, tea and herbal tea, and experiment with natural flavor enhancers such as lemon, lime, cucumbers, and berries. Read labels before you purchase a beverage. Even some of the “natural” waters sold in stores have added sugar. The added sugar will result in increased calories, weight gain, inflammation, and pain.
Strive to eat more fruits and vegetables
While fruits contain nutrients and fiber that are an important part of the anti-inflammatory regimen, they can also increase blood sugar and slow weight loss. Go for fruits that are low in sugar such as blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and pomegranates; limit to one or two pieces/servings per day, and combine with a meal that has a balance of fat and protein. My favorite is an apple with some almond butter or a handful of blueberries and whole almonds.
On this natural pain relief journey, you should also plan to eat plenty of non-starchy vegetables, which will provide you with anti-inflammatory nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. The magic number is NINE servings daily! Start experimenting and consuming more leafy greens such as kale, spinach, collard greens, dandelion greens, beet greens, and arugula; garlic and onions add a nice dimension and flavor, so add them liberally! A serving is one cup of raw, leafy greens, or one-half cup of cooked vegetables. You don’t have to measure servings at every meal but try to be mindful of serving sizes and the inevitable portion distortion!
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Toward a pain-free life,
Dr. Joe Tatta, DPT, CNS