Just How Big Of A Role Does Food Play In Low Back Pain?
High levels of inflammation in the body make low back pain more likely. Eating a diet rich in inflammatory sugar, grains, and vegetable oil drives inflammation up. If you really want to dial in your nutrition and understand how to communicate well with your body, you need to understand your ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats.
You probably recognize the term Omega-3 from the fishy smelling capsules you started taking several years ago, but do you know what they actually are and what they do? Moreover, do you know about their cousin, the Omega-6 fatty acid? Understanding these two powerful molecules will help maximize your nourishment and minimize inflammation.
Omega-6 vs Omega-3 fatty acids:
Both fatty acids are essential, meaning that the body does not produce them. Thus, their presence in our bodies is entirely dependent on consuming them through food. The immune system and inflammatory response are largely dependent on these two fatty acid molecules to function. They are signaling molecules known as eicosanoids. Their function is to signal up regulation or down regulation of the inflammatory response. In general, Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory, while Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory (or pro-resolving). If Omega-6s are the gas pedal, Omega-3s are the brake pedal. Technically we need both, the same way we need both gas and brakes on a car. Unfortunately, our diets are absolutely, stupidly, over the top full of Omega-6 fatty acids and largely devoid of Omega-3s. Imagine driving a car with a huge engine and tiny little brakes- dangerous!
The reason for the imbalance is because Omega-6s are found in grains and (most) seeds, while Omega-3s are found in green leafy plants (and the animals who eat them). Because of our high grain intake (bread, cereal, pasta etc), the grain-fed animal products we eat (eggs, meat, dairy), and the industrially derived cooking oils we use in EVERYTHING (soybean, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower etc.) we tip the dietary scale heavily in favor of Omega-6s.
With mostly pro-inflammatory fatty-acids in our bodies, we as humans are suffering more each year from inflammatory conditions, including allergies, GI dysfunction, cancer, heart disease, and neurological disorders like dementia, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s. On a more day to day basis, excessive inflammation looks like stubborn weight gain, delayed healing of tissues and injuries, chronic pain, allergies, upset stomach, upset mood, and lack of mental clarity. Particularly important for our neurological health, Omega 3s comprise the brain’s physical matter. No one questions the necessity of calcium for bones or protein for muscles, but few realize that the brain is also made of something, and that something is a particular fatty acid chain- you guessed it- Omega 3s!
So what needs to be done is increase the amount of dietary Omega-3s and decrease the amount of Omega-6s. While the exact requirements will be a little different for everyone (just as daily caloric needs of individuals vary) what is consistent is the ratio. A good rule of thumb is to aim for a 1:1 Omega 6s: Omega 3s. To put this in perspective, grain-fed ground beef has a ratio of 8.4:1.0, while grass-fed is 0.8:1.0. If you do the math, that means grain-fed has ten- TEN!- times the amount of Omega 6s as grass-fed. In even simpler terms, grain-fed is likely to cause an inflammatory response, while grass-fed acts as an anti-inflammatory. A large, intimidating-looking spreadsheet of these ratios can be found here: https://www.texasgrassfedbeef.com/sites/default/files/pdf/food_analysis_efa_fat_protein_net_carbs_sugar_3_1_19.pdf. It is not exhaustive, but it does provide a valuable reference for most of the foods you may consume.
What about my beloved avocados?
Omega-6s are everywhere! Even otherwise healthy oils, nuts, and seeds are quite high in Omega-6s. If you are getting a lot of calories every day from nuts and seeds (peanut butter, almonds etc.) and avocados/olives, you are probably consuming excessive amounts of Omega-6s. Now, for those of you who have painstakingly eliminated toxic vegetable oils and carb-calories from your diet and faithfully purchased avocados by the bushel and olive oil by the barrel, please don’t groan. These healthy fats, high as they are in Omega-6s, are still infinitely better for you than that junk you threw away, especially that deceptive tub of Smart Butter or Earth Balance. The reason is due to the specific molecular conjugation of the Omega-6s found in “healthy fats” vs. those found in industrial-process oils. Remember, the body DOES require Omega-6s!
The trick to improving your ratio is to memorize the (very short) list of Omega 3 rich foods, and then incorporate them into your diet whenever possible, especially in replacement of Omega-6 rich foods. Fortunately, this does not require memorizing the massive list of Omega-6 rich foods. By simple process of elimination, any fatty or oily food that is not on the short list of Omega-3 foods is going to be an Omega-6 food. For those of you who want to redline your nutrition, referencing the aforementioned spreadsheet will add greater accuracy to your choices.
Where to find Omega-3s:
Flax seed and Flax oil:
Flax seed is cheap and readily available. For maximum potency, buy the seeds whole and grind them in a coffee-grinder before immediately before use. With the ground seed you get the added benefit of fiber! Without grinding, the seeds will pass right through you to no benefit.
Flax oil is expensive and can be found in small, opaque bottles at health-food stores. It is a good way to supplement if you are vegan.
Chia seeds are also cheap and readily available. I usually buy in bulk on Amazon. They can be ground like flax seeds, soaked for a few minutes prior to consumption or sprinkled into foods like salads.
Flax and Chia are my favorites because they are cheap, contain lots of fiber, and contain reliably high amounts of Omega-3s.
Aim for about 3-4 Tbs of Chia and/or Flax seeds per 1000 daily calories. If you eat 2000 calories a day, try to get 6-8 Tbs.
I mix 6-8 Tbs into 1 C of kafir, yogurt or milk and add a few blueberries for fun for at least 1 meal every day.
I also add 6-8 Tbs into 1 lb of ground grass-fed meat (along with an egg and some spices) to make burgers, meatballs, meatloaf etc.
As mentioned before, chia seeds can be added about a Tbs at a time to salads.
If it fits your budget, eating wild-caught fish regularly is probably the best way to maximize your Omega-3 intake. Wild caught fish averages a whopping 0.1:1.0 ratio, while farm-raised is neutral at 1:1.
Grass-fed animal products:
Who doesn’t like butter? Pasture raised butter has a ratio of 0.9:1.0, making it a great neutral source of calories (and taste!). For this reason it is my go-to cooking oil (low heat only though, I’m afraid).
Grass-fed cheese tips the ratio favorably at 0.7:1.0, making it a great source of fat and protein. If you snack every day on almonds or peanut butter, have a few slices of grass-fed cheese instead!
Grass-fed meat tends to be slightly disadvantaged, around 1.7:1 average. Reference the chart for more specifics.
Grass-fed milk also tends to be neutral, around 1:1 average.
Like I said, it’s a short list! Flax, Chia, Fish, Grass-Fed Dairy, and a few Grass-Fed Meats. If the foods you are eating aren’t fatty, like vegetables, you don’t need to worry too much about their ratios.
“Grass Fed” caution:
Many products labeled as grass fed are actually from animals with grain supplemented diets. Thus these products are more like the lesser of two evils than true health foods. If you want to be sure you are getting actual grass-fed, pasture-raised animal products, you need to buy from smaller, reputable companies who are passionate about this sort of thing. A few companies to look into for ordering are texasgrassfedbeef.com, epicprovisions.com (we sell their products at village). Other online companies such as butcherbox have received some scrutiny for failing to disclose where their claimed grass-fed meat is actually sourced.
The best option for quality meats is to get connected to an actual farmer or rancher. However, this usually requires buying at last half an animal at a time and keeping a spare freezer in the garage to store it all. With so much potential to get ripped-off with meats, I lean towards a diet rich in pasture-raised dairy, chia and flax seeds. I would eat more wild caught fish, but they’re pricey.
Sensitive to temperature, humidity, light, and air, Omega-3s are delicate and easily oxidize, losing their most important properties. Though there are many reputable fish and flax oil supplements out there, it is unlikely they have been properly transported and stored at every step of their journey to your body. Because they are so expensive, it would be unfortunate to take a spoiled product without knowing it!
Go get some fish and flax! Remember those old Men’s Warehouse commercials, where a man with a smoky voice would say, “You’re going to like the way you look, I guarantee it.” I’ve been to plenty of weddings outfitted by Men’s Warehouse with questionable looks in the mirror, but I can say, if you change your ratio, “You’re going to like the way you feel, I guarantee it.”