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Degenerative Disc Disease: Foods to Avoid That Increase Inflammation & Back Pain

Published May 4, 2018
| Written By BackerNation Editorial Staff   | Medically Reviewed by Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD
Tags:  Nutrition

When you have degenerative disc disease there are certain foods you'll want to avoid—those which cause inflammation and irritation. While some of these are foods you've eaten and enjoyed with no consequence, they now move into a category of pain-inducing foods that you should scratch off of your grocery list.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 40 percent of people in their 40s and approximately 80 percent of people in their 80s will develop degenerative disc disease. While pain associated with degenerative disc disease can be treated non-surgically, an estimated 10–20 percent of people with lumbar disc degeneration and approximately 30 percent of people with cervical disc degeneration require surgical treatment. For the rest, conservative therapies and nutrition are the easiest ways to manage degenerative disc disease. Those looking for solutions to regain quality of life in the kitchen, let’s examine foods you should avoid. These foods can create inflammation and instigate further pain.


Agents of Inflammation

Inflammation is connected to numerous health ailments. If you’re living with degenerative disc disease, you'll want to avoid foods that inflame the spine. Foods linked to inflammation also cause weight gain. As you know, those with back conditions benefit from maintaining a healthy weight and reducing pressure on the spine to prevent further degeneration. Below is a list of foods those with degenerative disc disease should avoid and cut from their diet.

  • Sugars (and processed sugars). Sugar is to blame for many chronic diseases and conditions, yet more than 70% of Americans overeat the daily recommended amount! Diets high in sugar increase obesity, insulin resistance, and inflammation. To learn which foods are high in sugar and which are not, see this infographic.
  • Vegetable oil (and other processed oils). These oils increase trans fatty acids.
  • Potato chips. Snacking and snack foods have grown in frequency and number, eating frequency has also increased, leading to higher rates of obesity and high cholesterol levels.
  • Fried foods. Cooking oils contain omega–6s, but too much throws off the omega–6 and omega–3 balance in your body and end up causing inflammation.
  • Refined flours. A study in the Journal of Nutrition revealed that refined grain (used in flours) were positively associated with producing a protein responsible for inflammation.
  • Artificial sweeteners. To lower sugar, some people opt for artificial sweeteners. If your body responds poorly to these, your immune system will trigger an inflammatory response, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
  • Saturated fats. Dietary fats are connected to obesity and inflammation, as well as type 2 diabetes, all conditions that a person with degenerative disc disease should aim to avoid.
  • Processed meats (i.e. bacon, bologna, hot dogs) and animal proteins. Animal proteins have long been the center of debate as to whether or not they increase inflammation and inflammation-related diseases. Some have argued that when we consume processed meats we get trapped in a chronic low-grade inflammation danger zone daily. If you have degenerative disc disease, try to reduce the amount of processed meats and animal proteins you eat each week.


As in most aspects of self-care, a healthy approach will have numerous benefits that can filter into various aspects of life. Maintaining a healthy well-balanced diet low in processed foods can have numerous benefits in the long-term. Counterbalance the foods you should avoid—processed and sugar laden foods—with fresh, whole foods that help not only your back, but your heart, spine, and blood pressure.

“Eating heart-healthy foods rich in omega–3 fatty acids, like salmon and tuna, and having a diet rich in whole grains, beans and nuts will improve the health of your spine by improving your blood pressure. Controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol will not only help your heart – it will help your spine,” says Dr. Oz

Updated: November 10, 2019

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Contributors and Experts

Staci Gulbin, MS, MEd, RD is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, health editor, and founder of LighttrackNutrition.com.
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