By Karen Lee Richards*
While there is no single fibromyalgia diet, there are certain dietary principles that have been found to be effective for helping to reduce digestive disturbances, cool inflammation and improve FM symptoms.
The following article by Sue Ingebretson, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University at Fullerton, explains the basic principles of a healthy eating plan for fibromyalgia.
The Fibromyalgia Diet
On the fibromyalgia group pages of various social media sites, I read this comment more than any other:
HELP! I Don’t Know What to Eat!
Does that sound like you?
If so, you’re shouting in good company. The cacophony over what to eat (or more loudly, what not to eat) is practically deafening.
Any post, tweet, or article I write that mentions nutrition is likely to have multiple comments expressing frustration in this area … and for good reason. While the specifics of individual diets vary, it’s clear that what we eat has a great effect on how we feel. And, we are each different, with unique nutritional needs.
Whether chronic illness sneaks up slowly, or begins suddenly (such as after an accident, significant illness, or traumatic event) it’s common for symptoms to develop in a cascading fashion. It may start with stiff joints and then travel to that foggy, fatigued, and all-over bruised feeling. Most of us, at one time or another, have said that from head to toe, nothing feels right.
Poor digestive health is a widespread systemic concern, affecting the entire body. It contributes to cognitive impairments, skin conditions, and immune system dysfunction, as well as joint and muscle pain. And, of course, digestive symptoms are also present such as intestinal pain, bloating, gassiness, intermittent or chronic diarrhea and/or constipation.
Those of us with fibromyalgia (as well as various autoimmune challenges) are known as super-sensitive individuals, right? We’re super-sensitive to lights, sounds, touch, scents, and tastes. That heightened sensitivity also relates to the foods that we eat.
We may be overly-sensitive to foods that don’t seem to bother others. A comprehensive list of these potential problematic foods can be found below, but for now, we’ll discuss how to approach this knowledge.
Rather than focusing on what not to eat – place the focus of your attention on what to eat.
Look for foods that feed the body at a nutritionally fundamental level. Consume a healthy balance of quality macronutrients (protein, veggies, and healthy fats) and be sure to stay hydrated throughout the day by drinking clean, filtered water.
By providing the vital nutrients that are typically missing from the Standard American Diet (S.A.D), the body is then better able to create a healing environment which results in reduced overall inflammation.
You may wish to review this ProHealth basic nutrition article for more details.
Making healthier substitutions is a great way to make small changes that yield big results. For example, swap out processed grains (corn, rice, breads, pastas, cereals, etc.) for ancient grains such as quinoa, millet, and amaranth. They make a great addition to any meal and are naturally wheat and gluten-free. Replace processed peanut butter with whole, natural almond or cashew butter. And/or, use hummus as a spread or dip rather than highly processed mayonnaise.
Experiment and get creative in the kitchen. Make it a goal to try new and different foods, giving yourself permission to be patient and flexible. It takes time to adapt to new and different tastes and textures. Don’t worry if something isn’t an instant “like.” It may surprise you later on to develop a craving for healthier versions of foods you once liked.
Feeling empowered about your nutritional options leads to making healthier choices rather than leaving you to feel limited or deprived. The goal is to do your best to replace highly processed and empty-nutrient foods with whole food choices that are as close to nature as possible. There’s no hard and fast rule about this.
When it comes to feeding ourselves well, taking steps toward better health is the important part – not the “exactness” of it all.
Phrases such as “shouldn’t have” and “can’t have” are not typically helpful when making nutritional changes. They imply a sense of helplessness and submission to your health concerns. It’s far more empowering to intentionally make healthy food choices based on your knowledge and understanding of what foods feed your body the best.
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When I first began my nutritional healing journey, I put dairy on the top of my no-no list since I knew it gave me intestinal trouble. Once I made it an official “can’t have” item, I began to notice intense cravings for ice cream, cottage cheese, and quesadillas. When I gave in to the cravings, I suffered terribly (there was no ambiguity about the physical side-effects). When I held firm to my belief that I “couldn’t” have it, dairy was all I thought about. It was only after doing more research and learning how the lactose intolerance issue was affecting my health that I made the educated choice to give it up.
I’ve learned that I have more success when I decide to remove something from my nutritional plan rather than feeling that I have to.
My experience with dairy just happens to be one example, but I’ve seen this same scenario play out with my clients. The ones who are very regimented with themselves about what they “can” and “can’t” have often experience significant cravings.
Remember that nothing makes us crave something more than the forbidden-ness of it. Instead of thinking in terms of limitations, simply focus on doing the best that you can, most of the time.
This chart shows a basic list of foods that may be problematic for you. Whether they trigger an intolerance or sensitivity response, it’s important to note their potential negative impact on your overall health.
After consuming any of the following foods, you may wish to track any subsequent symptoms that arise. Pay attention to how you feel immediately after your meal as well as any symptoms that occur even several hours later. Track a variety of symptoms such as overall pain, fatigue, cognitive function, itchiness, runny nose/eyes, joint stiffness, and digestive dysfunction. Also track any disturbances you may notice regarding your ability (or inability) to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Try – as best you can – to assess the foods individually.
For more information on how to go about this, you can simply Google “Elimination Diets” and see multiple ways and methods to approach this exercise. You’ll also see a wide variety of foods that are considered problematic. I’ve listed some fundamental foods here, but you may wish to add to this list as you feel necessary.
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* Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.
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