Fibromyalgia: diet problem areas and healthy changes

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

21 December 2015

What does diet have to do with it?

It is often tricky for fibromyalgia sufferers to get a diagnosis, as common inflammatory markers may be absent and there is frequently no observable damage or deformity to any of the areas that are painful.

Adding to the confusion when trying to reach a diagnosis is the fact that fibromyalgia is a syndrome encompassing a range of symptoms that not every sufferer will experience. Pain is common to all, but fatigue, sleeping disturbances and digestive complaints are present in varying combinations.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is often part of the fibromyalgia picture, with digestive havoc adding to the general debility. IBS is another syndrome with an imprecisely defined set of symptoms, but one that is well worth tackling. Promoting better digestion ensures absorption of nutrients from food, which makes it more likely that the nervous system will be well nourished and more robust, which in turn may assist with the stress and sleep issues that haunt so many of those with fibromyalgia. Being better nourished is also likely to improve energy levels.

To get started, let's look through an average daily diet.


Likely to include: toast or cereal

Possible problem area: wheat

Many people with fibromyalgia find it hard to deal with wheat (and/or gluten), which takes quite a lot of energy to digest. Professor Alessio Fasano of the Centre for Coeliac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital has published research showing that gliadin (a protein in gluten) can cause leaky gut in non-coeliacs, as well as coeliacs[1]. The researchers think that a modern, high-gluten wheat diet may have become unsuitable for all humans, not just those with gluten sensitivity. It’s definitely the case that many people feel increased energy and better general digestion when avoiding wheat-based foods. 

[1] Fasano A et al. Nutrients 2015, doi: 10.3390/nu7031565

Make it better: you could start by having wheat at one meal per day rather than at all three. If you feel better you can make bigger changes. Swap bread for oatcakes, rice cakes or corn cakes. Look for wheat-free cereals such as corn flakes, millet flakes or rice puffs. These are available in sugar-free versions in many supermarkets and most health stores. Enjoy wheat-free pasta made from spelt, rice, corn or another non-wheat grain. There are many of these in health stores and some supermarkets also stock them.

Change it: consider having stewed apples or pears with spices such as cinnamon. These are very easy to digest and give you energy quite quickly; whilst cinnamon helps keep your blood sugar stable – excellent for your energy levels.


Likely to include: wheat, fizzy drink and chocolate bar/ cake/ sweeties

Possible problem areas: refined sugar, wheat

You’d be amazed at the negative effect refined sugar can have on your energy levels once the initial buzz has worn off. Your body has to use up valuable stores of magnesium and B vitamins to process it, leaving you vulnerable to higher pain perception and low mood.

Magnesium is extremely important for the proper functioning of the nervous system, and since fibromyalgia features central nervous system sensitisation, this is likely to be worse when less magnesium is available.

What’s more, the crash in energy levels once your body has dealt with the sugar can be very debilitating, leaving you reaching for more sugar to get you through the afternoon. Sugar highs and lows are bad for your concentration and make you prone to irritability.

Make it better: if you absolutely can’t do without a fizzy drink, make your own with pure fruit juice and some carbonated water. To avoid diluting your digestive enzymes, leave half an hour between your meal and your drink. Look for raw chocolate or sugar-free versions sweetened with stevia or coconut nectar.

Change it:
swap your fizzy drink for plain water or green tea. Green tea is very supportive for metabolism and is likely to make you feel energised. Nibble on dried fruit such as dates, figs or raisins instead of sugary snacks. These fruits contain the all-important magnesium and also give you steady energy supply instead of the up-and-down of refined sugar. Other magnesium-rich foods include: almonds, apples, avocados, hazelnuts, brown rice, cashews, celery, millet, oats, and dark green vegetables.

Great alternatives to wheat include:
Corn (maize)
Chia seeds
Ground almonds
Gram (ground chickpeas)


Likely to include: creamy pasta dishes or ready meals topped with cheese
Possible problem area: dairy products

Processing dairy products is quite demanding on the digestive system, and can leave you feeling bloated and sluggish. Many people are intolerant to these products without realising it, and feel nauseous and acidic after eating them. They can also create a great deal of mucus, leaving you congested and unable to breathe clearly. As shallow breathing affects energy, pain perception and sleep quality, it’s something to avoid. Cheese usually contains high levels of salt, which is why it is used so widely as a flavouring ingredient. High salt intake is bad for your blood pressure and makes you retain fluid, whilst its effect on your kidneys can make you feel tired

Make it better: swap cow’s milk products for goat’s or sheep’s milk products. These are lighter on the digestion and often contain less salt than their counterparts. They may also be lower in fat, whilst still being tasty.

Change it: ready meals often contain high quantities of dairy products such as cheese and cream. Read ingredient lists carefully and choose those without dairy, or at least with dairy products low on the list. Opt for using dairy-free alternatives in your cooking: soy milk, soy cream and coconut cream make great, affordable alternatives!

Did you know?

When you eat foods high in salt you tend to start craving sweet foods. After a while you tip back towards salty flavours again. If you are familiar with an evening spent see-sawing between crisps and chocolate then try keeping salt levels low to avoid triggering this phenomenon.

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