Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder, and so, as with other chronic conditions, those living with arthritis often look at all the ways in which their lifestyle choices can reduce their symptoms. Although it may not seem like there is an obvious connection, your diet can have an impact on your arthritis.
Disclaimer: This article is meant for educational purposes only and no changes to your health or diet plan should be made without consulting your clinical team.
It is important to make it clear that treatment and management of arthritis requires a multi-pronged approach. Reading about the condition online, there are plenty of first-hand accounts of what has worked for one person, as well as general advice based on the experience of groups of people with arthritis. Ultimately, what is needed and what works for you will come down to your symptoms, their severity and frequency, and the recommendations of your specialist.
Here, we aim to explain the evidence based link between diet and arthritis and provide some tips for amending your diet to reduce flare-ups.
Can diet affect arthritis?
Yes, diet can have an impact on arthritis. A 2017 study, Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis with Dietary Interventions, looked at the impact of various diets on arthritis symptoms. The clinical trials looked at gluten-free vegan diets and lactovegetarian diets – essentially diets that omitted meat and animal products.
The trials found that within a month of taking on a gluten-free vegan diet, arthritis patients recorded reductions in tenderness and joint swelling. It found that patients were able to maintain these improved, lesser symptoms for over a year by maintaining the adjusted diet.
Although this was only one study, others have found similar results with dietary changes. A 2018 study noted that high fat foods, such as red meat, and sugary foods and drinks contributed to RA flare-ups. It also noted that citrus fruits, fish and lactose products, contributed to a reduction in arthritis symptoms.
The combined findings makes it clear that there are certain foods that will likely negatively impact your arthritis and cause flare-ups, as well as those that can support a healthy body and so reduce symptoms.
Foods that (are thought to) cause arthritis inflammation
Here are some foods that are known to cause inflammation of arthritis. If you need somewhere to begin when adjusting your diet to try and improve your arthritis symptoms, these are the ingredients, and foods they are used in, to start avoiding:
- Sugar – this includes sweet treats like pastries and chocolate, as well as sugary fruit drinks. If the ingredients include fructose or sucrose, it’s best avoided.
- Saturated fats – common saturated fats include pork, butter, ghee, coconut oil and cheese. Avoiding eating or cooking with these ingredients.
- Trans fats – these are a common additive used to make foods last longer on supermarket shelves. Trans fats are a form of processed (hydrogenated) cooking oil commonly found in baking shortening, frozen pizzas, ready meals and fried foods.
- Refined carbohydrates – specifically white food products, like white bread, white potatoes, white rice and most cereals (which often also contain a lot of sugar).
- Alcohol – Alcohol is a toxin for the body and puts a burden on the liver to process, which disrupts other organs and causes inflammation in arthritis. Alcohol also negatively impacts sleep, which in turn can worsen flare-ups in your arthritis.
Foods that can help ease arthritis symptoms
There are plenty of foods that are good for arthritis and which you can both enjoy and will help you to self-manage your symptoms. Foods that can help with arthritis include:
- Green tea – this natural tea contains plenty of nutrients plus antioxidants that help to reduce inflammation of arthritis.
- Omega-3 rich fish – sardines, mackerel, tuna and salmon all contain a great range of nutrients, while being a super source of protein, that can help reduce inflammation and will help protect your heart.
- Antioxidant fruits and berries – fresh or frozen, blackberries, blueberries, pomegranates and apples, can be enjoyed for their great taste and antioxidant benefits. Just don’t add sugar to them.
- Green vegetables – think brussel sprouts and broccoli here, rather than peas or mangetout. Leafy greens are important for a healthy diet and can help support healthy immune function so you don’t have such painful arthritis flare-ups.
- Cauliflower and mushrooms – both these vegetables have anti-inflammatory qualities, though you will only get the effects by enjoying them as part of a regular diet rather than after one meal.
- Home-made salsa – tomatoes, onions, lime juice (plus coriander and any other vegetables you might include) contain vitamin C, fibre and antioxidants, making salsa a great addition to your diet. Avoid store bought where additives will be added.
- Olive oil – you might be surprised to learn this but coconut oil and vegetable oil are worse for those with arthritis than olive oil. Olive oil, and corn oil, contain omega-3 and 6 which can help with arthritis.
- Ginger and tumeric – two wonderful ingredients that are great for gut health and arthritis, again for their excellent anti-inflammatory properties.
- Whole grains – quinoa, farro and bulgar are all great alternatives to white rice. Whole grains contain fibre to keep your digestive system working properly so you can maintain a healthy immune system.
- 70%+ dark chocolate – Dark chocolate contains antioxidants, which help with inflammation, and a ton of extra nutrients that will benefit our overall health. Anything less though and you aren’t getting the benefit of the cocoa, you’re getting sugar and milk extract which won’t help with your arthritis.
What anti-inflammatory diets can I try to reduce arthritis flare-ups?
Ultimately, an anti-inflammatory diet is one that doesn’t include ready meals and processed foods. Focusing instead on raw ingredients and home-cooked meals will allow you to best control what is going into your body and, in doing so, keep arthritis flare-ups to a minimum.
If you need somewhere to start, check out the recipes for vegan, vegetarian and mediterranean diets – and avoid any of the above ingredients that cause symptom flare-ups. You can find plenty of free recipes online too, not just in recipe books:
- Good Food – BBC Good Food is home to a fantastic collection of recipes and they are all free. They even have seasonal groupings, meals tagged as vegan, and a whole Mediterranean recipe collection.
- Olive magazine – the British food magazine has numerous free recipes that can help inspire your weekly meal planning. Their vegan recipes are colourful and interesting, and easy to make.
- allrecipes – An online index of hundreds of recipes. allrecipes includes tried and tested recipes for everything from vegetarian lunches to healthy snacks. It is also a great place to find alternative recipes for favourite foods, like curry or banana bread, that can be made to suit an anti-inflammatory diet.
Building a diet that helps with your arthritis will be a process
Inflammation can come from different sources and each body responds uniquely. Finding what works for you may take time and careful observation. You could try a few diets or start with an elimination diet – removing the foods that are known to cause flare-ups in arthritis.
Recording what is working and any impact on your arthritis symptoms will be key to creating a diet that you enjoy and which minimise your flare-ups. One way is with a food diary. Another is to try tracking how you are feeling about your diet and how your symptoms are using the My Arthritis app. This can make it easier to find the links between the two over time.