It’s well-known that certain foods can increase a person’s likelihood to develop conditions like cancer or heart disease. However, not many people realize the effect that food choices can have on leg pain. There are numerous treatments to manage leg pain, but simple dietary changes can also help. 2 sources of leg pain in particular, inflammation and diabetic neuropathy, are strongly impacted by food choices.
3 main food groups can increase leg pain from inflammation.
Inflammation is usually the body’s response to injury or illness, and heat, swelling, pain, and redness are the signs of extra immune activity. However, if dietary choices encourage too much inflammation, it can lead to chronic pain conditions, such as persistent leg pain from osteoarthritis.
Food groups that can encourage inflammation include:
- Saturated fats
- Trans fats
Both saturated and trans fats contain pro-inflammatory compounds. Saturated fats are mostly found in animal products, such as fatty meats or dairy products. Choosing lean meats and low-fat or fat-free dairy can reduce saturated fat intake. Additionally, saturated fats are found in palm oil and palm-kernel oil, which are used in the preparation of many packaged crackers, baked goods, and other snack foods.
Trans fats are artificially produced to lengthen products’ shelf-lives. In addition to contributing to a host of other health concerns, trans fats are potentially more inflammatory than saturated fats. Currently, manufacturers must list the amount of trans fat in products’ nutritional information if the level of trans fats is half a gram or above per serving. If the amount of trans fats is below half a gram, though, the nutritional information might read “0 grams trans fat” even though trans fats are present. Instead, check the ingredients for “partially hydrogenated oils,” which are trans fats.
Another food group that can contribute to inflammation is carbohydrates, which can be found in baked goods, potatoes, and refined sugars. Carbohydrates are broken down into sugars by the body, and sugars and proteins react to produce pro-inflammatory compounds. Limiting carbohydrates to keep blood sugar low can reduce this reaction.
Certain foods can reduce inflammation.
Just as there are foods to avoid, there are foods to search out. The following foods can reduce inflammation, thereby reducing leg pain:
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Antioxidants, such as vitamin C, carotenes, and bioflavonoids
- Vitamin D
- Certain spices
Omega-3 fatty acids are considered polyunsaturated fats. These fats are extremely important and can aid in the prevention of everything from cancer to heart disease to autoimmune disorders. Omega-3 fatty acids are also effective at reducing inflammation.
The University of Maryland Medical Center states that:
“It is important to have the proper ratio of omega-3 and omega-6 (another essential fatty acid) in the diet. Omega-3 fatty acids help reduce inflammation, and most omega-6 fatty acids tend to promote inflammation. The typical American diet tends to contain 14 – 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, which many nutritionally oriented physicians consider to be way too high on the omega-6 side.”
Omega-3 fatty acids are found primarily in fish. Additionally, these fats can be found in some seeds, nuts, and vegetables, particularly chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, seaweed, and edamame. Fish oil supplements are also available.
Extra virgin olive oil contains healthy fats, too, but it also contains a compound called oleocanthal. Anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin function by blocking inflammatory pathways, and oleocanthal does the same thing. Extra virgin olive oil has the highest antioxidant count, and stronger flavor usually means more oleocanthal. Replacing vegetable oil or butter with extra virgin olive oil while cooking can simultaneously remove more harmful fats while adding better ones.
Antioxidants protect the body from harmful substances called free radicals. Although some studies have suggested that antioxidants can prevent or slow some conditions, such as arthritis, the research is still somewhat mixed. However, it’s generally agreed that antioxidants are beneficial. Additionally, antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, which are excellent additions to all-around healthy diets. Richly-colored fruits and vegetables, such as kale, red bell peppers, and berries, are particularly beneficial.
Calcium is essential for healthy bones, and the body can’t adequately absorb calcium without vitamin D. Therefore, a deficiency of vitamin D can lead to bone-related conditions like arthritis and osteoporosis. Vitamin D is often added to dairy products, such as fat-free milk, and it can also be found in fish, soy, and eggs.
Some spices also seem to possess anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger, in particular, can potentially lessen leg pain from knee osteoarthritis, while turmeric is thought to be able to suppress inflammatory chemicals in the body.
Leg pain from diabetic neuropathy can also be lessened by dietary changes.
Diabetes is a disease in which blood sugar levels are elevated for a prolonged amount of time. The toxically high blood sugar levels can damage nerves, which can lead to diabetic peripheral neuropathy, which is nerve-related pain of the limbs. Approximately 50% of people with diabetes will experience nerve pain. The feet are very commonly affected by this condition. The best way to lessen leg pain from diabetic neuropathy is to control blood sugar levels through careful food choices.
Carbohydrates are broken down into sugar, so being careful of breads, starches, and sugared drinks will help lessen diabetic neuropathy pain. Cinnamon has also been found to be effective at lowering blood sugar levels. Additionally, excessive alcohol can damage nerves further, so limiting the number of alcoholic drinks can be beneficial.
If a physician prescribes a medication to help control blood sugar levels, it should be taken as directed. However, some medications can have serious interactions with certain foods, such as grapefruit, so discuss possible drug interactions with a physician.
The best way to lessen leg pain through diet is to eat a variety of fresh, unprocessed foods.
According to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, the typical U.S. citizen eats less than the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and healthy oils, but also eats more than the recommended amounts of calories, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fats. This diet will contribute strongly to several different health conditions, including those that cause leg pain.
The best anti-inflammatory diet includes a lot of fresh foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Unprocessed foods, lean meats, and whole grains are also great choices. Essentially, home-made, from-scratch meals are ideal, although the occasional glass of wine or piece of dark chocolate is okay, too.
Do you think your current diet might be contributing to your leg pain?
Image by Katrin Morenz via Flickr