a woman slicing and cutting up fresh fruits and vegetables on a kitchen counter

Good nutrition is an important part of your overall health. A healthy diet should include a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins and healthy fats. This gives your body the nutrients and energy it needs to function properly.

And a well-balanced diet also is vital for building your body's immune system and healing power. That's why nutrition can be your ally in fighting pain and inflammation.

"Lifestyle modifications are very important for helping someone manage their overall pain," says Dr. Tina Ardon, a Mayo Clinic family medicine physician. "Two important aspects to think about upfront are a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight. These two things can make great impacts on how someone deals with their pain."

Watch: Dr. Ardon discusses how a healthy diet can help manage pain.

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Is your diet helping ... or hurting?

“Research indicates that there is a link between diet and inflammation," says Dr. Ardon. "Although this is a normal process in response to an injury or an infection, sometimes inflammation can turn into a chronic process and actually be widespread throughout the body." Long-term inflammation is linked to several diseases and conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

"We know that some foods can contribute to, or exacerbate, inflammation; whereas, other foods actually can be helpful for reducing or preventing inflammation,” says Dr. Ardon.

“Some clues that can make us think about a nutritional deficiency may be things like joint pain, fatigue, disrupted sleep. Even some skin findings can indicate a nutritional deficiency," says Dr. Ardon. "So if a patient is concerned that that could be something they’re dealing with, they should speak to their health care provider and talk about appropriate testing and examination.”

Pro-inflammatory foods

Pro-inflammatory foods are foods that can contribute to inflammation. Most processed foods are pro-inflammatory, as they tend to be high in unhealthy fats (including saturated and transfats), added sugars, preservatives and refined carbohydrates.

“In terms of foods that can be pro-inflammation, those are foods that include processed foods, carbohydrates, high sugars, unhealthy fats," says Dr. Ardon. Deep-fried foods, pastries, processed cereals, white rice, white potatoes, sugar, breads and red meat are also pro-inflammatory foods.

Anti-inflammatory foods

"Foods that can help reduce inflammation, those are things like our fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, those sorts of things," says Dr. Ardon.

The nutrients in some foods have anti-inflammatory or analgesic properties that can help relieve pain. Anti-inflammatory foods may include:

  • Fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fats
    Omega-3 fats play a role in altering the inflammatory process and regulation of pain. Salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel and herring are high in these fats. Soy-based foods, walnuts, pecans and ground flaxseed are also good sources of omega-3 fats.
  • Antioxidant-rich foods
    Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, avocados, beets and berries, are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants can prevent, delay or repair some types of cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants include certain vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotene, lycopene and flavonoids. A wide variety of other foods are also rich in antioxidants, such as lentils and beans; nuts and seeds; whole grains; green tea; and certain spices, such as ginger and turmeric.
  • Certain dietary supplements
    Dietary supplements that have been shown to help provide a healthy balance of inflammatory chemicals in your body include the botanicals cat's claw, devil's claw, ginger root, turmeric and Boswellia (frankincense). Other nonherbal dietary supplements, including omega-3 fish oil and antioxidants, are helpful when you don't get enough of these nutrients in your diet.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion regarding vitamin D, omega-3, turmeric and probiotics, says Dr. Ardon. "These can be helpful for certain patients, but always recommend to review these recommendations with your physician.”

Always talk to your health care provider before starting any supplement regimen because some dietary supplements can interact with prescription medications.

“I always encourage patients to reach out to their primary care provider or other health care professionals in their care to make sure whatever dietary changes or supplements they’re interested in adding to their regimen are safe depending on their personal health history and medications," says Dr. Ardon.

This article is written by Mayo Clinic staff. Find more health and medical information on mayoclinic.org.