Arthritis causes chronic joint inflammation that can spread to other parts of the body. Researchers are finding more evidence to link sugar and arthritis, and sugar is known to worsen symptoms in people with the condition.

Some types of arthritis include rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and gout.

Many people believe that sugar is bad for arthritis. Anecdotally, people with arthritis often say that sugary foods trigger their arthritis flares.

Research generally backs this up. Eating excess sugar causes the body to produce more cytokines, which are inflammatory proteins. People with arthritis already have high levels of cytokines, so increasing inflammation can make them feel worse.

In contrast, a 2018 study found that people with arthritis who consumed a higher quality diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish had lower inflammation and disease levels.

Read more to learn about how sugar affects people with arthritis, how to reduce excess sugar intake, and more.

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People generally should consume excess processed sugar in moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends keeping added sugars below 10% of a person’s total daily calories.

People with arthritis may want to be particularly conscious of their sugar intake.

A 2017 survey of 217 people living with rheumatoid arthritis asked participants which foods triggered their symptoms. Sweets were the primary culprit: 12.7% said sugar was a trigger, and 12.4% blamed desserts.

It is important to note that this was a survey that merely represents an association reported by the participants. The study also involved primarily white women, so it is not representative of the larger population of people with arthritis.

Researchers have been studying how sugar affects the body in order to understand how sugar may increase a person’s risk of developing arthritis or worsen existing symptoms of the condition.

Some studies and findings include:

Gut microbiome disturbances

The gut microbiome is the ecosystem of bacteria and organisms in the digestive system.

Several studies suggest that the gut microbiome of people with arthritis may be different than those of people without arthritis. This has been studied in people with both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

A 2015 study found that treating rheumatoid arthritis partially restored a normal gut microbiome. It also found that disturbances in the gut microbiome correlated with arthritis symptoms.

Read about psoriatic arthritis and the microbiome.


Sugar may cause, and worsen, inflammation in the body. A 2018 systematic review found a link between chronic inflammation and consuming large amounts of excess sugar.

Because people with arthritis already have a lot of inflammation in their bodies, anything with the potential to increase that inflammation can be harmful

Other research seems to confirm the link between arthritis and sugar consumption.

A 2014 study followed 186,900 women who participated in two long-term studies. Researchers found that women who consumed more than one sugar-sweetened soda per day had a 63% increase in their risk of developing seropositive, but not seronegative, rheumatoid arthritis.

This association persisted even when researchers controlled for other dietary and lifestyle factors.

However, sugar may not be solely to blame. According to a 2018 study, a diet high in processed foods that includes sugar may be just as damaging. Researchers found that a standard Western diet, defined by high sugar intake, low fiber, and high saturated fat, may increase inflammation.

The researchers also emphasized that this type of diet can increase insulin resistance and obesity, which are both risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis.

The previously mentioned studies show not just that sugar is harmful, but that the type of diet that tends to include lots of sugar –– one high in processed, fatty foods –– can also worsen arthritis symptoms.

People with arthritis should focus on reducing sugar while adding nutritious foods to their diet. They can try adding foods like:

  • fruits and vegetables
  • lean protein sources
  • legumes, nuts, and seeds
  • unsweetened beverages, especially water

Making dietary changes is hard, so it is important to go slowly and focus on making consistent, positive changes. Some people may find it useful to replace existing foods with more nutritious alternatives. They can try:

  • replacing desserts with sweet fruits like mangos or watermelon
  • reading ingredient labels and paying close attention to added sugar
  • eliminating sweetened beverages
  • eating smaller portions of desserts and sweet treats

People should focus on eating a balanced, nutritious diet. There is no need to eliminate entire food groups and cut out sugar completely.

Fixating on eating perfectly can make healthy eating more difficult. In some cases, it may even lead to disordered eating.

For people looking to learn which foods to cut down on, the following list may be useful. Some foods to eat in moderation include:

  • sweetened beverages
  • trans and saturated fats, which studies often link to arthritis
  • beverages or foods with added sugars
  • sweet desserts, especially daily or in large portions
  • alcohol, especially in large quantities

A number of strategies can make life with arthritis feel more manageable. Try the following:

  • Keeping a log of arthritis symptoms: This can help a person identify factors that worsen symptoms.
  • Talking to a doctor about arthritis medication: While pain medication is one option, disease-modifying agents can reduce and slow inflammation in autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Taking a self-management workshop: These classes teach people about strategies for managing arthritis and tactics to advocate for themselves.
  • Getting moderate exercise: Physical activity can ease arthritis pain and prevent secondary pain from a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Maintaining a moderate weight: Excess weight puts more pressure on the joints, which can worsen arthritis symptoms.

Research has linked high sugar consumption to worse arthritis symptoms.

However, studies have also shown that standard Western diets, high in processed foods, also have a detrimental effect.

People with arthritis can try eating a nutritious diet, cutting down on sugary, processed foods, and maintaining a moderate weight.

This may improve their symptoms, helping them to live a more comfortable and active life.