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Chapter 8
Food Rules for Healthy Backs

One Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from a Grammy-winning recording artist who was suffering from severe upper back and neck pain and was concerned that she was not going to be able to make it through her performance on Saturday Night Live and a concert that was scheduled for the following day. She said the pain was so bad she could barely turn her head.

During the examination, I noticed that her whole muscular system was tight, almost to the point of rigidity. It was as if she were suffering from a full-body spasm. From the examination, which includes an assessment of the abdominal area, I could tell that she was suffering severe gas pains. We talked for a while, and she told me about her on-the-road diet, which was not very healthy and frequently featured tasty treats like toaster pastries and ice cream. It became clear to me that her primary problem -- so serious that it caused back and neck tension and pain -- stemmed from bad eating.

I presented her with the good news. I explained that I understood how very uncomfortable she was (and how very real her pain was) and that although I couldn't cure her immediately, I knew she could feel much better within a few days. (When the physical reaction is this severe, it reflects a toxic buildup within the body, which requires a reorientation of the diet and time for the body to readjust.)

Bad Habits Compound Other Problems

Like the Grammy winner I just described, most of my patients say they don't have much time to prepare meals. When asked to keep a food diary, which I ask of most of my patients, a typical day's entry will read like this:

Breakfast: coffee, muffin or bagel, more coffee

Lunch: sandwich, chips, soda or iced tea

Snack: candy or chips, more soda

Dinner: pizza or pasta dish, soda or wine, pastry or ice cream

Does this list look familiar? It's pretty clear that this kind of eating doesn't provide you with nearly the vitamins and nutrients you need to stay healthy.

If you put low-performance fuel into what needs to be your high-performance body, there is little surprise that your back and body aren't functioning at their peak. If you are concerned about your health, you need to upgrade the fuel you consume. But even people who place great value on exercising and eating right can run into trouble if the balance of food is incorrect, causing pain-related issues.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Curiously, those patients (about 20 percent) whose back pain has been clearly linked to chemical or nutritional factors ate healthily. But many had very little variety in their diets. These people were actually eating too much of a good thing. Keeping a food diary was easy for them because they ate almost the exact same thing every day. Unfortunately, this system doesn't work. Your body needs multiple sources of the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients it needs. Ironically, when it comes to food choices, a certain level of inconsistency is ideal. Because these patients didn't eat a variety of healthy food, their dietary systems were constantly irritated. Many of these patients had gassiness, a bloated feeling, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and even constipation. In these cases, we strive to get the patients eating a more balanced diet. Over time their digestive systems slow down, and the transit time becomes more accommodating for positive absorption -- and their back pain goes away.

Before I understood this, I went on my own health kick. I started having oatmeal -- which is high in fiber -- every day for breakfast, and salads were my choice for lunch. Unfortunately, a week into this diet, I had a dramatic increase in bloating and stomach pain -- and eventually a stiff neck. When I returned to my old eating habits, which were already pretty good, I felt better. The moral of the story is that just because a food is considered healthful doesn't mean it is always good for you -- or acceptable to eat in excess.

So what healthy foods cause trouble? The most frequent offenders include salad, oatmeal, egg whites, tofu, smoothies, raw vegetables, frozen yogurt, beans, freshly squeezed juices, and protein bars. The demon in many cases is often too much roughage. Although we all need some roughage for proper digestion, too much causes your digestive tract to go into overdrive.

One patient, Paul, offers a good example of what can happen with too much of a good thing. Although he was trying to adjust his lifestyle for better health, he found that the process could be painful. Recently he came to me complaining of lower back pain that was so severe he couldn't lift or play with his 1-year-old twins. He had been following my stretching regimen before and after he exercised, and he was quite miffed to be suffering from debilitating pain.

When I asked him to explain what had happened, he said he "just kind of woke up with the pain" after playing basketball the day before. He had no recollection of getting injured, but he surmised he was just getting too old to play, joking that he was worried his illustrious career was over at the age of 35.

I went through my regular questions. He had just told me about his exercise and stretching routine, so I continued: Had he been stressed? No. Had he eaten anything different? No. But then he paused. He mentioned he had just gotten back from a spa where they talked about the benefit of flaxseed oil, so he had begun to put flaxseeds on all of his food.

As I continued this line of questioning, it became clear that the flaxseeds created too much irritation to Paul's digestive system and, in turn, caused muscle inflammation, which resulted in severe back spasms.

I suggested that he stop eating the flaxseeds and reduce the amount of roughage in his diet for a time to let his system calm down. He was pain-free within a week.

Quick Tips for Eating Well
  • Eat something within 1 hour of getting up each morning
  • Have at least one healthful snack between meals each day
  • Eat slowly to allow yourself to be aware of feeling full
  • Avoid the clean-plate club. Always leave at least one bite of each type of food on your plate at the end of each meal.
  • Keep a food journal for at least 1 week, maybe longer