Doctor’s Tip: Musculoskeletal disorders and diet

Dr. Greg Feinsinger
Doctor's Tip

Last week’s column was about the link between what people eat and low back pain. Does what we eat affect other musculoskeletal conditions as well?

The short answer is yes. Physiatry is a medical specialty that involves non-operative care of musculoskeletal disorders. At the recent 10th annual International Plant-Based Nutrition Conference in California, there was an excellent presentation by physiatrist Stephan Esser, M.D., from Florida. Today’s column is based on that presentation.

In order to have a healthy musculoskeletal system (and the rest of your body as well), the following need to be present:

  • good perfusion of blood, oxygen and nutrients through unobstructed arteries to the bones, joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles and nerves that make up the musculoskeletal system
  • absence of chronic inflammation
  • ideal body weight (excess weight causes stress on hip, knee, ankle and foot joints; plus fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals)
  • a healthy gut microbiome — absence of gut bacteria that produce inflammatory chemicals
  • absence of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) with aging
  • absence of autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, where the body attacks itself

Following are things you can do to help ensure a healthy musculoskeletal system:

  • ARTERIAL HEALTH: Dr. Esser says that “impaired perfusion is nearly universal in adult Americans” due to the standard American diet (SAD), high in animal products, refined grains, salt, sugar,and added oil. A plant-based, whole-food diet not only prevents, but as shown by doctors Ornish and Esselstyn also reverses arterial damage such as plaque.
  • CHRONIC INFLAMMATION is linked to animal products, salt, sugar and added oil; a plant-based, whole-food diet is anti-inflammatory.
  • EXCESS WEIGHT can be addressed short term by most diets, but vegans and vegetarians are consistently most apt to maintain ideal body weight long-term.
  • A GUT MICROBIOME that is health-promoting is attained by eating fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. And, by avoiding animal products.
  • SARCOPENIA can be prevented by engaging in a resistance training program for at least 20 minutes twice a week on non-consecutive days starting at age 40 and continuing throughout life. People 65 and older also need extra protein, easily obtained by eating a plant-based diet with lots of legumes — or adding a plant protein supplement, such as pure pea protein.
  • AUTO-IMMUNE DISEASES can’t always be prevented, but we do know that people who eat a plant-centered diet have a much lower incidence.

Following are some examples Dr. Esser gave of preventing and reversing musculoskeletal diseases with healthy food: 

1. Due to better perfusion of blood and nutrients to the tissues that make up the shoulder, rotator-cuff injuries are less apt to occur in people on a plant-based diet. If they do occur, they are more apt to heal on this diet; and, if they don’t heal, recovery is faster after surgery. 2. One of the complications that often occurs in people with long-term diabetes is diabetic neuropathy — pain and/or numbness in the feet. It can be reversed with proper nutrition in a large percentage of cases. 3. Auto-immune diseases can often be reversed with plant-based nutrition. (See “Goodbye Autoimmune Disease” by Brooke Goldner, M.D.).

It should be pointed out that regular aerobic exercise in moderation is anti-inflammatory and helps prevent injuries. And, regular stretching helps keep tendons and ligaments healthy.

Does this mean that if you eat a plant-based diet, exercise regularly, do resistance training and stretch, you are guaranteed to live a long, healthy life free of musculoskeletal problems? No, but you will be stacking the deck in your favor.

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment, or email

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