Nutrition and Pain: How the Foods You Eat Affect Pain

We are learning more and more about the importance of diet to our health. We know that poor diets are related to developing many chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.1 However, we are now beginning to appreciate the relationship between diet and pain, and how the foods we eat can directly increase or decrease the level of pain that we feel.

Central Sensitization

Central sensitization is a process that happens in our nerves and brain when we have pain for long periods of time. Changes occur in how our nerves and brain operate, so that our nervous system is more easily activated and has a lower threshold for pain.2 There are special cells inside the brain called microglia which are involved in central sensitization. Microglia are activated in several ways:3

  • Poor diet
  • Peripheral inflammation
  • Oxidative stress (from a poor diet)

Trigger Foods

Certain foods are more likely to increase pain intensity because of the effects they have on the body via oxidative stress and inflammation. Examples of trigger foods include the following:3

  • Fat, especially added fats and trans fats. Avoid fried foods and processed foods that are high in these types of fats. Healthy fats, such as olive oil are okay.
  • Sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup. Avoid sugary beverages such as soda pop.
  • Dietary guidelines suggest that women can drink one alcoholic beverage every other day (4 ounces of wine) and men can drink 1-2 alcoholic beverages per day. Any more than this is too much.
  • Dairy products, especially cheese, are pro-inflammatory
  • Processed meats including smoked/cured lunch meats and sausages
  • Caffeine

What Should I Eat?

Researchers recognize that plant forward diets are the key to overall good health.3-6 A plant forward diet means that 80% of the food you eat is from plants. Luckily this way of eating is also the best way to manage chronic pain and inflammation.3-6 Plant forward diets include:

  • FODMAP diet
  • Mediterranean diet
  • Vegetarian diet
  • Vegan diet

Try to get 10 servings of fruit and vegetables daily. A serving size is:

  • 1 cup of leafy greens
  • ½ cup of chopped vegetables or fruits
  • 1 medium sized fruit

Another way to consider this is to look at your plate. Half of the food on your plate should be vegetables and fruits, ¼ of your plate should be whole grains, and ¼ should be a healthy protein.7


Studies show that dietary changes can improve your pain levels within 3-7 days depending on what condition you have and what changes you make.3 So, look down at your plate and see what you can do to improve your diet and decrease your pain at your next meal!



  1. “Poor Nutrition.” National Center For Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Accessed 8/2/2021.
  2. “What is Central Sensitization?” Institute For Chronic Pain. Accessed 8/2/2021.
  3. Tatta, Joe. “How to Use Nutition to Target Pain and Central Sensitization.” The Painful Truth—Lies, Deceptions, and a Hopeful Way Forward Conference, Colorado Chapter of the APTA, 16 May, 2021. Lecture.
  4. Tatta, Joe. Heal Your Pain Now: The Revolutionary Program to Reset your Brain and Body for a Pain-Free Life. Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2017.
  5. Barnard, Neal. Foods that Fight Pain: Revolutionary New Strategies for Maximum Pain Relief. Harmony, 1999.
  6. Bulsiewicz, Will. Fiber Fueled. The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome. Avery, 2020.
  7. “Healthy Eating Plate.” Harvard School of Public Health. Accessed 8/2/2021.