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  • Heather Tick

Better nutrition, less pain: Turn your pantry into a potent tool for better health and less pain

By Heather Tick, MA, MD

Integrative Pain Medicine,

Heather Tick is Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington in the Departments of Family Medicine and Anesthesia & Pain Medicine, and is also the first holder of the prestigious Gunn-Locke Endowed Professorship of Integrative Pain Medicine at the University of Washington.

She is a multiple-book author, including the highly acclaimed Holistic Pain Relief – An In Depth Guide to Managing Chronic Pain.


Diet is a major determinant of health

The Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the actual causes of death in America and identified diet as a key lifestyle factor blamed for half of deaths in 1990. Not much changed in our food habits as a nation, and there are confusing messages about different types of restrictive diets, such as vegan, vegetarian, paleo, Mediterranean, raw diets, etc.

In 2014 Annual Reviews published a paper by Yale University’s Prevention Research Center that looked at the major diets of the day to see if there was evidence to support which ones are best for health. The results might surprise some.

It can all be summarized in Michael Polan’s 7 word directive:

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.“

So what is food?

In the USA we classify many things as foods that are actually “food-like” substances. Many of them would be illegal in other countries because they contain too much sugar, or too many chemicals, or they don’t have all ingredients listed on the label. A typical grocery store in the US has approximately 50,000 different items on the shelves. Most of them are not real food. The food is usually in the aisles around the outside of the store with fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and unprocessed fish, poultry and meat. Dairy products may or may not be considered real food, depending on many factors. Real foods come from farms for the most part and not from factories.

After the second world war, the US economy needed to shift away from military industrial products and needed to invent new items to manufacture. “Convenience foods” were invented and heavily marketed. They were filled with fat, sugar and salt which food scientists correctly realized, were highly addictive. So they were very good for business, but not so good for the nation’s health care budget. They have led Americans down the path to hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, body wide inflammation, and pain [i].

What is in real food?

Real food is composed of macronutrients, such as protein, carbohydrate and fat which provide the calories in our food, and micronutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, flavonoids and other antioxidants that are essential for health.

What is in processed food?

Processed foods tend to be high in calories with an abundance of unhealthy fat, refined carbohydrates, salt and chemicals such as pesticides, stabilizers, texturizers, antibiotics and preservatives. Eighty percent of processed foods contain added sugar [ii] [iii]. Processed foods are generally low in fiber, micronutrients and antioxidants, and are pro-inflammatory. Some processed foods are called “enriched” because a few micronutrients have been added back into the processed foods, but the forms of minerals and vitamins may not be the best quality or in the right combination to replace those removed. There is rarely an attempt to add back the very important antioxidants. It is also important to know that we are still discovering some of the health promoting micronutrients in our foods: how can we replace those if we don’t yet recognize them?

“You change you body chemistry every time you eat” [iv].

You either increase your inflammation, or you decrease it. Diets high in unprocessed fiber, healthy oils, fruits and vegetables and low in sugars, starchy carbohydrates and unhealthy oils can reduce inflammation and disease [v] [vi] [vii] [viii].

Obesity is at epidemic proportions in the US. Obesity is associated with diabetes, heart disease, stroke, liver diseases and joint pain through increased stress on joints and altered biomechanics. Excess fat cells in the body produce inflammasomes, newly discovered molecules that travel through the blood stream and cause more inflammation. They are especially toxic to the pancreas [ix] but also to other organs.

How to make healthy choices

There are so many different sorts of diets: it can be confusing. The plants in our diet contain the most nutrients, so they should make up the majority of your foods. This is very important for people having pain because those nutrients fight inflammation and promote healing. Aim for variety in your diet: some cooked foods, some raw, and try fermented foods as well, like kimchee or sauerkraut. Avoid excess sugar and especially sweetened drinks. Experimenting with different herbs and spices can make your food more interesting.

Health and healing begin with how we nourish our cells. Food is our first medicine.

To your health,


By Heather Tick MA, MD

Integrative Pain Medicine


[i] Hung HC, Joshipura KJ, Jiang R, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and the risk of major chronic disease. J Nat Cancer Inst 2004;96(21):1577-84. [ii] Ng SW, Slining MM, Popkin BM. Use of caloric and noncaloric sweeteners in US consumer packaged foods, 2005-2009. J Acad Nutr Diet2012;112(11):1828-34. [iii], accessed 8/19/2019. [iv] Tick H, Holistic Pain Relief, New World Library, 2013. [v] Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkins DJ, et al. A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled, 74-Wk clinical trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2009;89(5):1588S–96S. [vi] Adv Nutr. 2017 Mar 15;8(2):213-225. doi: 10.3945/an.116.014431. Print 2017 Mar. Magnitude and Timing of the Postprandial Inflammatory Response to a High-Fat Meal in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review. Emerson SR1,2, Kurti SP3,2, Harms CA3,2, Haub MD4,2, Melgarejo T4, Logan C5, Rosenkranz SK4,2. [vii] de Punder K, Pruimboom L. The dietary intake of wheat and other cereal grains and their role in inflammation. Nutrients 2013;5(3):771-87 [viii] [ix] Christ et al, Cell. 2018 January 11; 172(1-2): 162–175.e14. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2017.12.013.

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