When people think about ways to manage back pain, nutrition is not the first thing that comes to mind. But what you eat impacts your back health. “Nourishing your body with foods that reduce inflammation can really help you feel better much sooner,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic. Once again, good nutrition to the rescue!

Try This

Eating a mixed greens salad with in-season veggies is a great way to get fiber (which helps you feel full) and anti-inflammatory foods in your diet. For an extra anti-inflammatory boost, try this dressing: Mediterranean Salad Dressing
2 cloves garlic
1 tablespoon ground oregano
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Mix all ingredients together with a whisk or immersion blender; makes 16 (1 tablespoon) servings.

Stop Fanning the Flames
Much of our pain comes from inflammation. We usually think of inflammation as swelling — as in, you twist your ankle and it becomes swollen and it hurts. Inflammation is actually one of your body’s defense mechanisms to protect from infection and foreign substances. However, sometimes the protective response becomes chronic and, for one reason or another, is triggered when there are no infections to fight off.

For example, foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, simple sugars and white flour actually trigger inflammation throughout our bodies through a complex series of biochemical and hormonal processes. Left unchecked, inflammation runs rampant through your body, causing all kinds of problems — including arthritis (an inflammation of your joints) and, believe it or not, low back pain.

Your first line of defense is to reduce the number of pro-inflammatory foods you eat, which means cutting back significantly on:

  • Red meat
  • Highly processed foods and foods with added sugars (and very little nutrients)
  • White bread, white pasta, white rice
  • Whole-fat dairy
  • Sugary drinks and snacks
  • Fried foods
  • Anything with “partially hydrogenated oil” in the ingredients

QUIZ: Are You Eating for Beauty?

Go Mediterranean
While cutting down on inflammation-causing foods, you’ll want to increase your intake of anti-inflammatory foods. The best way to do this, Jamieson-Petonic says, is to follow the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on eating antioxidant-rich foods, lean protein, whole grains and heart-healthy fat. The overall concept:

  • Most meals should center around vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, beans, nuts, legumes, seeds, fruits, herbs and spices.
  • Aim for two to three three-ounce servings of omega-3-rich fish a week. Tuna and salmon are good sources.
  • Poultry and eggs can be eaten every other day. Keep portion sizes to three or four ounces, always remove the skin before eating, and alternate between egg whites and whole eggs.
  • Meats and sweets should be avoided whenever possible, or at least limited to once per week.
  • Red wine (one four-ounce glass a day or every other day) is also a Mediterranean staple because it’s rich in heart-healthy antioxidants.

Keep Your Back Bones Strong
Your bones start losing mass once you hit your twenties, which can really weaken the vertebrae in your spine. Excessive weakness and brittleness is known as osteoporosis. Banking enough calcium early in life helps prevent osteoporosis. But even later in life, calcium can help you maintain bone mass. Women should get 1,200 to 1,500 mg of calcium a day. Men need 800 to 1,000 mg. Good choices: calcium-fortified foods, including fat-free milk and dairy, calcium-fortified orange juice, whole-grain breads and soy milk. “The goal is to get as much as you can with food and then supplement the rest,” says Jamieson-Petonic.

Remember that you can absorb only about 600 mg of calcium at one time, so only take that much at once. Vitamin D can also help with calcium absorption, but the majority of Americans do not have optimal levels. Because we do not get enough vitamin D in food, it is probably best to include a daily supplement in your routine.

MORE: Roasted Wild King Salmon for Vitamin D

Drink Up
Proper hydration is key for every single process our body performs — from digesting food to fighting off disease. Dehydration creates a whole bunch of problems, from fatigue to headaches. But there is also a back connection, says Fredrick Wilson, DO, the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Spine Health at Solon. The bones of your spine (your vertebrae) have cushions, or discs, between them.

These discs are partly made up of a jelly-like substance, which is 90 percent water. Downing glass after glass of water can’t stave off all disc problems. However, making sure your body has a steady stream of fluid coming in (you’ll know you’re well hydrated if your urine is clear to light yellow instead of a dark yellow) may help keep that cushioning intact. 

by Judi Ketteler