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  • Writer's pictureSandhya Gokal

Pain and healthy eating

(and no, I don’t mean how healthy eating is painful)

It’s January 2nd 2024. My old year resolution was to eat with no distractions with the view of increasing my mindful eating level, and I began to implement it sporadically in December. But starting on 31st, I decided that I wanted to be consistent at least 75% of the time. In a 365 day year, that means I have to eat every meal with no distractions for 274 days of the year. 

Today I woke up with ridiculously bad shoulder and neck pain. I’m slower, my patience is thinner and I have an almost 1 year old who looks at me adoringly with her arms up, meaning I feel close to tears when I realise I can’t give her a cuddle. 

On the bright side, for some odd reason, I feel compelled to eat extremely healthy foods today. 

This is an anomoly, however welcome. Normally, when I am sick, tired or in pain, I use those as splurge days where I eat whatever I want outside the constraints of my self-imposed rules.

So the question sprang to my mind - how does pain levels affect eating habits?

What is pain?

Pain is a subjective experience that indicates that there is some unease in the body’s systems. I love this description of why we experience pain from the textbook Neuroscience by Nachum Dafny: Pain travels through pathways to inform the subject: “Get out of this situation immediately.”  

Here is a very, very simplified version of what happens in pain.

Image courtesy of Michigan Safer Opioid Prescribing Toolkit

We have specific pain receptors, or nerve endings, that only respond to damaging stimuli. Once those receptors identify something as potentially damaging, they send messages to specific nerves in the spinal cord, which then transmit the message to the brain. 

Phew. There is a lot more to the pain process, but it gets pretty sciencey in there. 

The other thing to note is that there is physical pain (described above) but also social pain, which is the emotional response that happens when we are separated from people or groups. 

Additionally, there is chronic pain to consider, which is pain lasting more than 3 months beyond what the expected healing time is. For the purposes of this post, I won’t be covering chronic pain, as the research in this area is extensive and I can’t do it justice in this short post.

Why we gravitate towards unhealthy food when pain hails us!

There are a few reasons why we choose unhealthy foods when we are in pain.

Firstly, pain impairs choices, making us more likely to rely on impulse rather than logic. This means, given the choice between an apple and ice cream, we are more likely to choose the more delicious food (in our minds). 

Remember that choice is largely affected by self-control, a muscle that needs to be strengthened over time.

Secondly, especially with chronic pain and social pain, we devote a lot of brain resources to ruminating on the pain and its causes, leaving us with less resources to exert self-control in developing habits.

Thirdly, unhealthy foods improve our mood because many people have subconscious messaging that says that those foods will make us feel better, even if consciously they want to limit their consumption of said foods. 

That means, if as a child you were soothed in painful situations with a particular type of food, then the brain ( well-meaning but clueless in these situations) will assume that those same foods will give you comfort in painful times as an adult, regardless of your good intentions and new years resolutions. 

Lastly, pain can lead to stress, which can shut down appetite in the short term. Unhealthy foods such as chips, chocolate and other junk foods are not calorie dense, and so are easily consumed without making us feel overly full. Coupled with the comfort factor, this makes it more likely that these will be the foods of choice during stressful times. 

Long term stress has the opposite effect. When stress levels are persistently high, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol which increases appetite and motivation, a combination that almost guarantees that we become more motivated to overeat. 

Sweet food in pain

Pharmacist nerd alert!

Did you know that sweet tasting foods have been found to have an analgesic effect? Whaaat? I feel so much more justified having eaten a block of chocolate after having soft tissue damage on my hip as a child. 😀

Sweet tasting food hits all the right spots in the brain - namely the opioid receptors. These are the switches in the brain that analgesics, or pain-killers also work on. So if you are reaching for sweet foods during painful times, don’t beat yourself up, because there is scientific reasoning behind this. 

Preventing the sweets grab 

Here’s the good news. We can regulate our consumption of unhealthy food during pain! Yay. All is not lost!

Of course, there’s a catch.

Our ability to regulate how much unhealthy food we consume in painful situations directly correlates with the amount of habitual self-control we have. 

What does that mean? If you already have a lot of self-control, built up over time, around food, then you are less likely to reach for unhealthy food in times of crisis. 

This actually explains why my story in the beginning makes sense. Over the past year, I have been tracking my healthy habits streaks (how many days in a row I managed to stick to my rules) and my latest and best streak was 78 days. (curse you, Christmas lunch!) My self control had improved so much just based on consistent actions that my mind was able to separate my eating habits from my pain. 

If you are at the beginning of your healthy eating habits journey, don’t despair! Think of painful times as a boss battle. If you are not able to resist the sweet foods, that’s okay. You’ll catch the next round, when you have had time to build up your self-control muscles.  

Additionally, reducing stress levels can make it easier to consume food mindfully. Paradoxically, mindful eating (eating without distractions and focusing solely on the food being eaten - texture, taste and mouthfeel) can reduce stress levels by allowing our brain to focus on the present moment. Something to think about there. 

Foods that are amazing during painful times.

Using food as a tool to fight pain is like using your breathing to calm stress levels - it’s a resource that’s readily available for most people in the developed world, and it’s easy to incorporate with minimal effort. Most of these foods have to be consumed on a pretty regular basis to have the best effect, so if you are thinking of starting a new sport with a high risk of injury, be sure to add these into your diet!


Turmeric contains curcumin which has evidence as a pain-reliever. It also calms the digestive system. Try a turmeric latte. If you are willing to brave the spice, try authentic Chai with turmeric in it - that contains ginger as well, so it’s a win-win.

Omega 3 fats

Omega-3 fast makes the nerves less sensitive to pain stimulus and decrease inflammation. These foods include oily fish, walnuts, flaxseeds or linseeds.

However, these take up to 3 months to kick in, so if you can make sure you are getting these in your diet on a regular basis, you are more likely to have better responses to acutely painful situations.

Monounsaturated fats

Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and avocado contains antioxidants to support immune system, and oelocanthal which has anti-inflammatory and pain relieving effects similar to ibuprofen. 


Cinammon balances blood sugar levels, giving you more energy to deal with pain. As an added bonus, cinammon also has anti-inflammatory properties (are you starting to see a pattern here?)


Ginger is an anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown that ginger can reduce intense muscle pain after a workout! Ginger also helps with nausea, which can accompany pain especially in migraines.

Any food containing magnesium

Magnesium is found in green leafy vegetables, nuts, seed, legumes and whole grains. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant and helps with sleep, so definitely include a healthy dose of these foods at dinnertime!


So there you have it, some strategies to reduce the intake of unhealthy foods during painful times. Congratulations on making it through!

What foods do you gravitate towards in times of pain? Let me know in the comments below.


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