Is Your Diet Contributing to Your Pain?

Inflammation in the body is a common cause of joint pain and stiffness1.  Unfortunately, the process of aging is accompanied by changes that tend to exacerbate inflammatory processes.3 On a positive note, however, you may be surprised to learn that modifying your diet can help to alleviate some of the discomfort and stiffness associated with inflammation.1

So how does inflammation work? “Low-grade chronic inflammation is influenced by nutrients such as fatty acids, glucose, bioactive plant compounds, and vitamins and minerals.”2 These nutrients either increase or decrease the body’s inflammatory state.  This is why the inflammatory process is so intimately associated with nutrition and the metabolism of food.2 Understanding which foods fall within inflammatory or anti-inflammatory categories and modifying one’s diet to address inflammation is one way to impact complaints of pain.

This article explains that a healthy anti-inflammatory diet need not begin with a long list of restrictions, but rather can begin with gradual modifications intent on protecting cellular health by controlling systemic inflammation.2

Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of Natural Solutions for Pain-Free Living states that “because cartilage, tendons, ligaments, bones, and muscles are primarily made up of the structural protein collagen, eating to slow the breakdown of collagen or enhance its rebuilding is going to help – no matter which type of tissue is at the root of your problem.” 9

Like many things, proper nutrition alone is not a cure all, but rather should be considered as one part of the puzzle of pain management. Other major contributors to joint pain include excess weight, insufficient physical activity, joint movement dysfunctions, stress, and dehydration. The online magazine Better Nutrition states that “one extra pound of body weight adds three pounds more pressure on knee joints, and multiplies pressure on hip joints by six.”10 Being sedentary results in increased joint stiffness, whereas gentle mobility through activities like walking, stationary biking, or swimming coats joints with lubricating fluid, which improves joint health and mobility. Joint movement dysfunctions create excess wear and tear on cartilage, but can be managed and reduced or eliminated with physical therapy treatment.  Stress causes adrenal glands to be in full “flight-or-flight mode” and to produce increased quantities of a hormone called cortisol.  This leads to more inflammation and muscle tension and decreases the body’s ability to heal and repair.8,9 Yet another component of healthy joints that is easily overlooked in the discussion of nutrition is having sufficient water intake. According to this newsletter from Tufts University “Water moisturizes and gives structural support to the joints, carries nutrients where they’re needed, and removes metabolic wastes from the body.” 1

It is important to remember that everyone reacts differently to food.  Thus, it is a good idea to consult your physician or a registered dietician with any specific questions you have concerning a change in your individual diet. However, in general, eating a balanced diet that is rich in whole foods and which contains very little added sugar is a great means by which to help manage pain. Refer to the chart below for some examples of both anti-inflammatory and inflammatory foods.  We hope that it will be helpful for encouraging some healthy eating habits!

Anti-Inflammatory Things to Eat: 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
CategoryFood Examples
Omega-3sSalmon, trout, tuna, herring, ground flaxseed, sardines
AntioxidantsBrightly colored fruits and vegetables
Healthy FatsOlive oil, avocados, almonds
FiberBeans, seeds, whole grains, vegetables, dark green vegetables, seeds, and whole fruits
Vitamin DFortified dairy and plant milks
Nonfat or Low-fat Cultured Diary ProductsYogurt, kefir
Pro-Inflammatory Things to Avoid: 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
CategoryFood Examples
Omega-6Liquid vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, cottonseed and corn oil – particularly from processed foods and fried foods
Added SugarsDesserts, sugar-sweetened beverages, candy
Unhealthy Fats (Saturated, Hydrogenated, and Trans Fats)Butter, margarine, cream, high-fat cheeses, fried food, corn, soybean, animal fats
Refined Carbohydrates, Processed FoodsWhite bread, pasta, white rice, crackers
Red Meats 
>2 grams of sodium, >300 mg caffeine  


  1. Eating Right for Healthy Joints. Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter [serial online]. June 2013;31(4):1-4. Available from: Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  2. Bordoni A, Danesi F, Shahar D, et al. Dairy products and inflammation: A review of the clinical evidence. Critical Reviews In Food Science And Nutrition [serial online]. August 13, 2017;57(12):2497-2525. Available from: Scopus®, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  3. Dunn-Lewis C, Kraemer W, Volek J, et al. A multi-nutrient supplement reduced markers of inflammation and improved physical performance in active individuals of middle to older age: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Nutrition Journal [serial online]. 2011;10(90):(7 Se. Available from: CAB Abstracts, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 4, 2017.
  4. SPINKS K. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Natural Solutions [serial online]. November 2012;(148):46. Available from: Supplemental Index, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  5. Giancoli A. Anti-Inflammatory Eating for Arthritis. Environmental Nutrition [serial online]. August 2017;40(8):4. Available from: Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  6. Eat for your joints. Natural Foods Merchandiser [serial online]. September 2016;37(5):13-14. Available from: Small Business Reference Center, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 4, 2017.
  7. Fight inflammation with food. Harvard Health Letter [serial online]. February 2015;40(4):5. Available from: Health Source: Nursing/Academic Edition, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  8. Williams E. Good Eats. Massage Magazine [serial online]. April 2012;(191):86-87. Available from: Rehabilitation & Sports Medicine Source, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  9. Mast C. No More Joint Pain. Delicious Living [serial online]. January 2008;24(1):60-61. Available from: Readers’ Guide Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson), Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  10. Tweed V. joint health alternatives. Better Nutrition [serial online]. September 2014;76(9):26-28. Available from: Readers’ Guide Full Text Mega (H.W. Wilson), Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.
  11. Seaman D. The diet-induced proinflammatory state: a cause of chronic pain and other degenerative diseases. Journal Of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics [serial online]. March 2002;25(3):168-179. Available from: CINAHL Complete, Ipswich, MA. Accessed December 12, 2017.