Inflammatory Foods That Could be Making Your Chronic Back Pain Worse

September 16, 2014 4:53 pm


If you’ve been dealing with chronic back pain for a while, then you know that inflammation only worsens – or even causes – the pain. Spinal steroid injections can significantly alleviate inflammation and, therefore, pain – but there are things you can do every day to reduce pain and make your life a lot easier.

One of the most effective ways to reduce inflammation? Eliminate inflammatory foods from your diet. Read on for some of the most potent inflammatory foods – and how to avoid them.*


Your sweet treats are doing more than getting you through the afternoon slump: excess sugar intake is correlated with tooth decay, type 2 diabetes, and obesity, among other things. Your body does a really good job of handling the excess sugar in our modern diet, all things considered – but eliminating sweetened foods like soda, pastries, candies, and most processed foods will do your aches and pains a world of good. If you’re eating packaged food and thing you’re avoiding sugar, think again: this ingredient goes by many different names. Look for ingredients ending in –ose (dextrose, fructose), corn syrup, and evaporated cane juice among others.

To satisfy your sweet tooth, opt for fresh fruit when you can. If you must add sweetener to your coffee or oatmeal, choose whole, minimally processed sweeteners like raw honey, stevia, or blackstrap molasses. Fruit and natural sweeteners give you some fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants to go along with that sweetness.

Dairy (casein protein)

If you can get your hands on high quality raw milk, choose that over other dairy; if you can’t, you’re probably better off eliminating dairy that contains high amounts of casein. Even if you feel like you handle dairy pretty well, know that most adults actually can’t digest it properly. Milk is a common allergen, and the best way to see if it’s affecting you for the worse is to cut it out completely.

Avoid dairy in butter, cheese, baked goods, cream-based sauces and soups, and anything that comes pre-packaged or pre-made.

Caveat: unsweetened plain yogurt should be fine if you’re not allergic to milk – but we recommend cutting out dairy for a few weeks before adding yogurt back in.

Trans fats, processed vegetable oils, and damaged fats

We know, we know – trans fats are old news. But these damaging fats are still found in processed foods, fast food, fried foods, and commercially made baked goods that contain margarine, vegetable shortening, or partially hydrogenated oil. Even if the nutrition information on processed food says there are 0 grams of trans fat in a food, you’d better check the actual ingredient list before proceeding: the FDA allows food containing under .5 grams of trans fat to be labeled as containing 0 grams.

Avoid: basically, all processed foods unless you can see that no trans fats are listed in the ingredients. Guilty until proven innocent for these pesky fats.

Vegetable oils have been lauded as health foods for a few decades now, but it turns out that these highly processed seed and vegetable oils are not doing our bodies any favors. Canola, corn, soybean, and safflower oil – just to name a few – contain a very high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats, which is the opposite of what our bodies are adapted for. And these oils are highly refined, which automatically takes them out of the realm of health food. Choose unrefined, cold-pressed fats instead – like olive, coconut, avocado, walnut, and sesame oil.

AGEs, or advanced glycation end products, are toxins formed when foods are overheated. When  your food and fats are overheated, nutrients are basically fried. Watch out for this in fried, grilled, overheated, and pasteurized products. Make sure you’re cooking in heat-stable fats (lard from pastured pork, coconut oil, etc.) and not overcooking your food.

Refined carbohydrates and grains

Most of us know by now that white bread isn’t doing us any favors – but even the “healthy whole grains” we’ve been chowing on for the past two decades have come under fire recently. Long story short, processed grains are difficult for the body to digest – and processed foods labeled as “whole grain” often contain some amount of refined grains.

Aside from refined grains being inflammatory on their own, processed grain-containing foods usually contain sugar – another inflammatory agent – and additives to keep the product shelf-stable. Modern grains have a much higher glycemic index – that is, they elevate your blood sugar – than do unprocessed grains. Several dietary movements, including auto-immune protocol (AIP) and paleo, eliminate grains completely. If you want to continue eating grains without causing your body to respond negatively, try buying your grains in their whole, dry form, then soaking (and even sprouting) them before eating. Soaking grains makes them more easily digestible.

We can’t address refined carbohydrates without using the G word, of course. Even if you’re not diagnosed as celiac or gluten-intolerant, a week of removing this protein – found in wheat, barley, rye, and much processed food – will likely ease any joint pain and inflammation. Gluten is an inflammatory food – period. But beware of highly processed gluten-free foods: they likely contain other super inflammatory agents like sugar and dairy.

Eliminating refined grains is a daunting prospect at first – but it really just requires a bit of planning ahead and can yield great results. Don’t knock it until you try it, right?

Factory farm-raised meat and poultry

Unlike the Clean Fifteen of produce, there’s not much wiggle room for conventionally raised meat, poultry and fish. Factory-farmed animals simply live less healthy lives: they are fed all manner of inappropriate foods (from refined grains to candy), given antibiotics and hormones and steroids, and are overwhelmingly raised in unsanitary conditions.

When these animals become our food, their diets have made their meat very high in omega-6 fats. Your body needs both omega-3 and omega-6 fats; but if the former is outweighed too heavily by the latter, you’re looking at some serious inflammation.

The answer isn’t to avoid animal products but to choose humanely raised animals. Grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and pork, and wild-caught fish contain the proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, and choosing these animals over their factory-farmed counterparts means you’ll protect yourself from inflammation. (Actually, eggs from pastured chickens and grass-fed beef are some of the best foods for your body out there!)


While a glass of wine or a nice nightcap might ease your pain in the moment, it’s only increasing your pain in the long term. That puffy face you see the morning after too many drinks is, you guessed it, inflammation. Choose hot tea before bed – or, if you must enjoy your beverage of choice, limit it to one serving a day at most.

To reduce inflammation quickly, cut out – or at least limit – processed foods. Cleaning up your diet will help you reduce inflammation, increase energy, and feel better in general. For those that love to cook, we’ve gathered our favorite anti-inflammatory recipes.

*A disclaimer about inflammation: while our contemporary diets mean that many of us suffer from chronic inflammation (manifested as all sorts of conditions), inflammation is not inherently a bad thing. Acute inflammation is the body’s way of healing small injuries like shaving nicks. It’s chronic inflammation that we need to be thinking about. 

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