It’s easy to turn to the medicine cabinet when you’ve got a migraine or stomachache. And while popping a pill is usually the fastest way to treat common health ailments, making some tweaks to what you put on your plate may be a better way to heal your body in the long run and sidestep those health issues in the first place.
“Good nutrition and an understanding of what works best for your individual body can help you avoid myriad ailments,” says Jen Bruning, a registered dietician nutritionist and media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here are some everyday issues you might be experiencing along with the common foods that might be contributing to them. Keep reading for more about what you should consider cutting out, plus the foods you should load up on instead.
How to Heal Common Health Ailments With Food
It gets a bad rap, but not all inflammation is to be avoided. “Some levels of inflammation are needed as they play a role in healing and injury repair,” says Pamela Nisevich Bede, a registered dietician and author of Sweat. Eat. Repeat. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, overworks your immune system and can lead to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
You can’t feel chronic inflammation the way you’re aware of acute inflammation after a cut or burn. But to be proactive to ward it off, reduce your intake of sugars, refined grains, and processed foods, advises Nisevich Bede. Up the antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables in your diet instead—tart cherry juice is a heavy hitter—plus omega-3-rich fish, flaxseed, and walnuts. Turmeric has also been shown to be anti-inflammatory, but adding the spice to your food isn’t usually enough to get an effective dose, says Nisevich Bede; try a supplement instead.
“There are no universal trigger foods, and for many people food alone may not be the cause of migraines,” says Bruning. But there are definitely some common culprits you should try cutting out first if these headaches frequently leave you sidelined. Start by steering clear of chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol—especially red wine. If nixing those doesn’t help, you might need to trim out foods like aged cheeses and cured meats (what’s charcuterie without some red wine, anyway?). Certain preservatives can also contribute to migraines. “A diet rich in fresh, minimally processed foods may help those with many food triggers,” says Bruning, who suggests consulting a nutritionist who specializes in migraine to help you find relief.
3. GI Distress
If constipation is the concern, you’re likely not getting enough fiber; focus on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. With other gastrointestinal issues, there unfortunately are no obvious offenders—but you can bet your diet is responsible. Caffeine may be the culprit, so you can start by cutting back on coffee. Often, stomach troubles are the result of eating something you’re not accustomed to—hot peppers if you don’t typically go for spicy food, for example, or maybe red meat if you usually stick to a low-fat diet. “The best way to prevent GI distress is to know what triggers your system and avoid those foods,” says Bruning. “Pay attention to how you feel after eating different types of meals to determine what works best for your body.”
If your stomach issues kick in mid-workout, take a look at the food you’re eating to fuel up. “Intolerances stemming from a sensitivity to a source of carbohydrate—often gluten or lactose or a simple sugar like fructose or glucose—are common sources of GI distress and often afflict my clients during runs and workouts,” says Nisevich Bede. Swapping in a new snack pre- or mid-workout could squash your stomach troubles.
A lack of energy can result from a quick boost of glucose in the bloodstream, followed by a crash as our bodies absorb that fuel, says Bruning. If you’re constantly crashing, cut out refined flours and sugary foods like sweet snack bars or soda. Focus instead on getting lots of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, and proteins—like avocado toast with a fried egg or a banana and almond butter. “Together these will help slow the absorptive process and lead to sustained energy without the crash later on,” she says.
Your issue might also just be that you need more water. “Generally, I find that fatigue stems from either dehydration or inadequate recovery from a workout,” says Nisevich Bede. Make sure to drink enough water and drinks or food to replace electrolytes, like pickles, bananas, spinach, and dairy (maybe not all together). To keep from feeling zapped post-workout, she recommends focusing on rehydrating and getting about 30 grams of high-quality protein.
Feeling antsy all the time? In a shock to no one, caffeine may worsen anxiety. As a first step to ward off stress, cut back on coffee, energy drinks, and chocolate. We know herbal tea isn’t the same, especially when you’ve got to stay on your game for all-day Zoom meetings; see above for fatigue-fighting foods to keep you revved without the anxious side effects. Also reach for fatty fish like salmon, shellfish, fermented foods (e.g., sauerkraut and kimchi), and foods with magnesium and choline (like beans and cashews); these are all proven stress-fighting foods.