Some people find that making changes to their diet improves their arthritis symptoms. This may involve avoiding inflammatory foods, such as saturated fat and sugar. It may also involve avoiding foods that are high in purines.
In this article, we look at five types of food a person with arthritis may benefit from avoiding, as well as foods that may help.
There are several types of arthritis, all of which cause pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis. Other forms include:
- rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- psoriatic arthritis
- juvenile idiopathic arthritis
- ankylosing spondylitis
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 23% of adults in the United States have a form of arthritis.
What a person eats can help:
- reduce inflammation levels in the body
- a person maintain a moderate weight
- promote tissue health and healing
- a person avoid specific trigger foods
Usually, inflammation protects the body from harm by helping defend against bacteria and aiding wound healing. However, when inflammation persists for an extended period, chronic symptoms can develop.
What a person eats has an impact on inflammation levels. Some foods are inflammatory, and others are anti-inflammatory.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, numerous studies show that anti-inflammatory foods can reduce arthritis pain and progression.
A person’s body weight also influences inflammation levels. Fat cells produce cytokines, which are immune cells that increase inflammation.
A person can use diet to maintain a moderate weight, which may help with inflammation and also reduce pressure on the joints.
Finally, some types of arthritis have specific trigger foods. For example, foods that are high in purines can contribute to a gout attack.
Read on to find out which foods to avoid with arthritis.
Several types of fat increase inflammation in the body. According to the Arthritis Foundation, a person with arthritis should limit:
- Omega 6 fatty acids: These include oils, such as corn, safflower, sunflower, and vegetable oil. Omega 6 fatty acids are not harmful in moderation, but many people in America consume a lot of them.
- Saturated fat: Meat, butter, and cheese contain this type of fat. Saturated fat should account for less than 10% of someone’s total calorie intake per day.
- Trans fats: This type of fat is harmful to human health because it reduces “good” cholesterol, increases “bad” cholesterol, and raises inflammation levels. Manufacturers have been removing trans fats from most prepared foods over the last few years but check the nutrition facts panel to be sure.
One study in Nutrients indicates that people who drink regular sugar-sweetened soda have an increased risk of RA. Harvard Health note that excess sugar consumption also increases the risk of dying from heart disease. It can also lead to obesity, inflammation, and other chronic diseases.
Many products contain added sugars. Always check food labels on breakfast cereals, sauces, and soft drinks, as these may contain surprising amounts of added sugars.
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs)
AGEs are inflammatory compounds that can accumulate in tissues, particularly as someone ages. An article in Patient Education explains that people with diseases such as diabetes and RA often have increased AGE levels. So, reducing AGE levels may help reduce inflammation.
Fat and sugar both increase AGE levels in the body. Some food processing methods and high temperature cooking also increase the AGE levels in food.
Nightshades are a group of vegetables that contain the compound solanine. Studies have not confirmed that nightshades can trigger arthritis pain, but the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine indicate that removing them from the diet helps improve symptoms in some people.
Nightshade vegetables include:
- bell peppers
- chili peppers
The Arthritis Foundation advise that people who suspect nightshades might exacerbate symptoms exclude them from their diet for a couple of weeks, then reintroduce them one at a time.
Keeping a food diary may help a person keep track of any reactions they have to a specific food.
Foods high in purines
For people who have gout, a doctor may advise a low purine diet combined with the medication.
Purines are substances in foods that the body converts to uric acid. Uric acid can build up in the bloodstream, causing a gout attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following foods are high in purines:
- red meat
- organ meat, such as liver
- beer and other alcohol
- cured meats such as ham, bacon or lunch meats
- some seafood, such as mussels and scallops
However, a 2018 review identified that some purine-rich vegetables, such as cauliflower, mushrooms, and beans, have no links to gout risk.
Consuming the following foods may benefit people with arthritis.
The Arthritis Foundation list the following as types of fat that can reduce inflammation:
- Unsaturated fats: These include olive oil, avocado oil, and oils from nuts and seeds. Extra virgin olive oil contains the compound oleocanthal, which has similar anti-inflammatory properties to ibuprofen.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, and herring, contain omega- 3 fatty acids. Arthritis researchers recommend eating at least 2 servings of oily fish per week. Alternatively, a person can take a fish oil supplement. Studies suggest that taking 600mg–1000mg of fish oil a day can ease stiffness, swelling, and pain in the joints. Vegetarians and vegans can get omega-3 fatty acids from walnuts or walnut oil.
Coconut oil may also be beneficial for arthritis. Animal studies show that even though coconut oil is a saturated fat, it has anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers need to carry out more controlled studies to confirm this benefit in humans.
Fruits and vegetables
According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, some studies indicate that plant-based diets can decrease RA symptoms. The Arthritis Foundation suggest that the following fruits and vegetables may be especially beneficial for people with arthritis:
- Onions, garlic, and leeks: All of these contain the anti-inflammatory compound quercetin. They also contain sulfur compounds that may reduce cartilage damage.
- Sweet potatoes, squash, and carrots: Orange and red vegetables contain carotenoids, which are antioxidants. Some research links carotenoids with a lower risk of developing RA, but this is not conclusive.
- Green leafy vegetables: Vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Swiss chard, and spinach contain calcium, which is essential for bone health. They also contain antioxidants.
- Citrus fruits, strawberries, and kiwi fruit: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) fact sheet on vitamin C says that foods with high amounts of vitamin C help protect bone and cartilage.
The Mediterranean diet focuses on the following foods:
- olive oil
- whole grains, fruits, and vegetables
- lean meats, eggs, and fish
- nuts and seeds
The diet also includes moderate levels of dairy products but limits sugar, alcohol, and red meat.
Some people who follow the Mediterranean diet may also lose weight without counting calories or limiting portion sizes because the diet is predominantly plant-based.
A large population-based 2018 study found that men who followed the Mediterranean diet had a lower risk of developing RA. Another study suggests that the antioxidants in the Mediterranean diet may decrease pain for people with RA.
Other tips that may help someone to manage their arthritis include:
- Low impact exercise: This type of activity helps a person stay active without damaging the joints. The CDC recommend walking, swimming, or cycling.
- Cooking methods: Certain cooking methods can preserve or release more nutrients from food than others. Steaming rather than boiling, and lightly frying in a healthful oil rather than deep-frying, can make nutrients easier to absorb. Microwaving for a short time in minimal liquid also preserves nutrient content.
- Sun exposure: Vitamin D is essential for bone health because, according to the Arthritis Foundation, it helps the body absorb calcium. While some food sources contain vitamin D, the easiest way to get adequate vitamin D is to spend some time in the sunshine.
Foods that increase inflammation, such as sugar and saturated fat, may worsen arthritis symptoms. Some people may also find that foods high in purines and nightshades trigger arthritis flare-ups.
To identify triggers, a person can try excluding suspected foods for a couple of weeks, then reintroducing them one at a time.
Anti-inflammatory foods may help someone with arthritis manage their symptoms. These include plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and anti-inflammatory fats.
Someone with arthritis who is struggling to find the best eating plan may wish to speak to a registered dietitian.