12 The foods that can make muscle pain worse

Foods that can make muscle and joint pain worse

What to include and foods to avoid

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S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise & Fitness), Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology Level 3
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27 July 2018

Why is diet so important?

While there are certain foods that contain specific vitamins and minerals that can help soothe your aching joints and muscles naturally (such as those rich in magnesium), there are unfortunately other foods out there that can actually increase pain and stiffness. This is usually because they trigger an inflammatory response which will, unsurprisingly, worsen any inflammatory conditions!

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, luckily there are a number of simple changes you can make to your diet to help keep your muscles and joints operating smoothly.

Here I outline my guide to help ensure that you avoid any foods that will risk increasing inflammation in the body. Instead of these you can start choosing better substitutes that may actually help to relieve your discomfort.

Simple foods swaps


Eat more

Eat less

Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and anchovies Meat, especially red and processed meats
Wholegrains including oats, quinoa, bulgar wheat, millet, brown rice plus beans and pulses including kidney beans and lentils Refined carbs including white bread, rice, pasta and sources of refined sugar
Green leafy vegetables such as kale or spinach and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower or Brussel sprouts Vegetables from the nightshade family including potatoestomatoespeppersaubergines
Exotic fruits such pineapple, papaya, mango and guava Citrus fruits such as lemons, limes or grapefruit
Plant-based dairy free alternatives such as nut milks or tofu Dairy foods, especially milk
Dried fruit such as figs Processed foods including baked goods, cakes, crisps or fast food
Pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds Eggs
Fresh herbs and spices including parsley, rosemary, thyme, turmeric and cumin.  Salt

Drink more 

Drink less

Water! Plus herbal tea options such as golden rod  Caffeine and alcohol

The explanations behind it all...

It can be overwhelming when someone simply reels of a list of delicious foods that you are no longer allowed so to help balance this out I’ve also included lots ideas for what to swap them for, plus explanations as to why.

Sources of protein

Eat fewer... 

Aim to reduce your intake of saturated animal fats by keeping your intake of red meat, dairy products and eggs to a minimum. Overloading on these foods can contribute to a build up of arachidonic acid which is inflammatory and won’t help your struggling joints.

Instead eat more... 

Oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardines and salmon are rich in omega-3 and can have a positive effect on inflammation.  If you don’t eat fish regularly though, to help manage your pain you might want to consider taking a fish oil supplement. When it comes to dairy, choose plant-based dairy-free alternatives such as nut milks, or tofu to add to savoury dishes. As for meat, opt for leaner cuts of beef or pork, and skinless chicken and turkey.

Carb focus

Eat fewer... 

Foods which have been more processed should be limited as they offer less nutritionally and are more likely to include added extras which can aggravate achy joints by promoting inflammation. Some of the main carby culprits to avoid include white, flour baked goods, white rice, white bread and any sources of refined sugar. These simply have no nutrients to offer in exchange for the calories they can pile on (weight gain will only add to your problems when it comes to joints). 

My advice for tackling carbs head on is to get in the habit of reading food labels and remember, too many labels probably means we are eating too many processed foods to begin with! Processed foods are also thought to use up valuable nutrients such as magnesium in the process of metabolising them, but have nothing nutritionally useful to give you in return, so it’s definitely worth giving a miss more often.

Instead eat more... 

Oats, dried fruits such as figs, seeds such as pumpkin, sunflower and sesame, beans such as kidney and legumes including lentils, all have lots to offer in terms of the nutrients they provide. They are all rich in magnesium, for one, which then encourages the proper absorption and utilisation of both calcium and vitamin D. 

Without sufficient magnesium, calcium may be dumped as painful crystals in and around the joints, plus magnesium can help to relax tense the muscles and people with low magnesium levels tend to feel more pain! Who knew? 

Vitamin D is another crucial nutrient for supporting our muscles and bones. Although dietary sources are limited, why not up your intake with a good quality supplement (once you’ve ensured you have sufficient magnesium first, of course).

Fruit and veg explained

Eat fewer... 

Although it doesn’t apply to everyone (I recommend you keep a food diary to try and detect patterns in what works well for you), it may be worth avoiding certain fruit and vegetables for a while to see if it affects your problem joints. 

Firstly, we have the nightshade family which includes potatoes, aubergines, tomatoes and peppers. Nightshades contain a chemical content called solanine which can cause a chemical reaction in the body and this can contribute to pain. Next, we have citrus fruits. Although, these are often a healthy choice and are packed full of vitamin C, in some people they can trigger a detox reaction which may aggravate things initially.

Instead eat more... 

Stock up on your green leafy veg instead such as kale and spinach which are nutrient-packed. Cruciferous veg such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts are also good options and are thought to boast some anti-inflammatory properties. When it comes to fruit, why not try some more exotic varieties such as pineapple, papaya, mango, guava? These contain naturally-occurring digestive enzymes which may help to reduce acidity in the body - this is always going to be beneficial for your joints!

Treat tips

Eat fewer... 

Sources of sugar and fast foods – ones to be avoided which I’m sure won’t surprise you. However, let’s compromise a little. Treats can be hard to resist completely and especially if you have a sweet tooth. So, I’m not suggesting you deprive yourself completely, but it’s more about understanding what foods can trigger your symptoms and how you can work towards managing your intake. 

Researchers suggest that sugar may increase inflammation which in turn increases pain, especially for those suffering from inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, gout and fibromyalgia. The same applies to all the cheap vegetable oils that are used in fried and fast food options. Plus eating high-calorie sugary or fatty foods that often combine both hidden sugars and fat in a wickedly addictive combination (such as in your cakes or baked foods), can contribute to weight gain, which will only put added pressure on your joints. 

Instead eat more... 

To satisfy your sweets cravings include safer, fresh fruit options in your diet as mentioned above. Then, when it comes to indulging in more savoury treats, why not experiment with some healthier fats? Good quality fats such as coconut oil or olive oil can be used to make delicious, home-cooked ‘cheat’ meals and contain a much more favourable balance of fatty acids. 

Added extras

Eat fewer... 

Although many of us are in the habit of seasoning our food with salt, excess salt can knock off the balance of other key electrolytes and minerals in the body which help to support the health and proper functioning of our muscles and joints. Salt can also hinder our hydration levels which shouldn’t be underrated either.

Instead eat more... 

Substitute some salt for more fresh herbs and spices. These can add more variety and flavour to your meals but also have the benefit of being anti-inflammatory.  Some top picks from me include turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, parsley, basil, rosemary and thyme. 

Don’t forget drinks too!

Drink fewer...

Load on up caffeinated drinks and alcohol throughout the week or weekend and you’ll only risk draining vital stores of key nutrients including magnesium and vitamins B and C. Caffeine and alcohol are also triggers for inflammatory processes throughout your body.

Instead drink more... 

Fill up on still, plain water, at least 1.4-2l daily. Many of you will be surprised at how little you actually drink if you take the time to assess your intake. It’s also important to note that your water intake should be separate from any hot drinks – so teas and coffee don’t count! 

Dehydration is often a trigger for joint pain so keeping well hydrated is simple, yet important. Taking a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a teaspoon of honey in a glass of warm water first thing in the morning can further help to reduce acidity in the body and is good for digestion. Alternatively, try out some Golden Rod Tea which can help to support the kidneys - this is an especially useful addition if you suffer from gout.

Originally published on 27/11/2014, updated on 27/07/2018

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