Because arthritis is a disease of inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet can go a long way toward reducing painful symptoms.
Now that you understand Arthritis Basics, begin an anti-inflammatory diet: exclude foods that fan the flames of inflammation and embrace plenty of foods that reduce it. To get the most out of nutritional changes, you should adopt both sets of recommendations.
Foods to Avoid
I already mentioned that being overweight puts extra stress on the joints, which escalates the risk of wear and tear. But there is another reason being overweight is a problem. Body fat is not an inert substance; it is metabolically active, capable of producing hormones and chemicals that actually increase levels of inflammation. By losing weight — and avoiding excess calories that can cause weight gain — you’ll automatically reduce inflammation in your body.
Specific food groups that increase inflammation include:
- Saturated Fats: This category includes fats in and from animal products, such as fatty beef or pork, poultry skin, and full fat dairy foods. Saturated fats are also found in palm oil and palm-kernel oil, which you may find in the ingredient lists of any number of items on your shelves, including crackers, cookies, bars, nondairy creamers, and other packaged baked goods. Try to dramatically limit your intake. In addition to carefully reading labels, choose reduced-fat or fat-free dairy products, lean cuts of beef and pork, and skinless chicken and turkey.
- Trans Fats: Trans fats were created by scientists to give baked goods a longer shelf life. Trans fats are thought to be at least as damaging as saturated fats in terms of inflammation and other health problems. They may even be worse. You won’t have to go to great lengths to determine whether a food contains trans fats or not. Manufacturers are now required to list the amount of trans fats right after listing the saturated fats on the nutrition label.
- Simple and Refined Carbs: Sugary foods, white-flour baked goods, white rice, bread, crackers, and other refined carbohydrates set up a state of inflammation in the body, causing increases in pro-inflammatory compounds. Limit these foods if you want the best chance of reducing arthritis pain and limiting its progression.
Foods to Add
These Food Cures all help to reduce some aspect of inflammation:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: The healthiest of fats for people with arthritis or other inflammatory disorders are omega-3 fatty acids. More than a dozen studies have demonstrated that omega-3 fish oils can drastically reduce symptoms of RA. I recommend an omega-3-rich diet (and in some instances, fish-oil supplements) to all my clients with arthritis. I’ve seen some amazing success stories. Some of the best foods for omega-3 fatty acids include salmon (wild, fresh, or canned), herring, mackerel (not king), sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, Pacific oysters, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, seaweed, and soybeans (edamame).
- Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: In addition to healthy monounsaturated fats, olive oil contains a natural compound called oleocanthal which may help prevent arthritis-related inflammation. These compounds block the same inflammatory pathways as ibuprofen and aspirin, medications commonly used to fight arthritis pain. I recommend using olive oil when cooking instead of vegetable oil or butter (substitute in equal or lesser amounts). For the highest antioxidant content, choose “extra virgin” olive oil; the stronger the taste, the higher the amounts of oleocanthal the oil is likely to have.
- Antioxidants — vitamin C, carotenes, bioflavonoids: Antioxidants protect the body from the effects of cell-damaging free radicals and are a critical part of an anti-inflammation diet. Research has also demonstrated that certain antioxidants may help prevent arthritis, slow its progression, and relieve pain. The best are: Vitamin C — found in guava, bell peppers, oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, pineapples, kohlrabi, papayas, lemons, broccoli, kale, potatoes, and brussels sprouts. Beta-carotene — found in sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, butternut squash, turnip greens, pumpkins, mustard greens, cantaloupes, sweet red peppers, apricots, and spinach. Beta-cryptoxanthin — found in winter squash, pumpkins, persimmons, papayas, tangerines, peppers (red chili and red bell), corn, oranges, apricots, carrots, nectarines, and watermelon. Quercetin — found in onions, kale, leeks, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, blueberries, black currants, elderberries, lingonberries, apricots, red apples with skin, and red/purple/black grapes. Anthocyanins — found in blackberries, black currents, blueberries, eggplant, elderberries, raspberries, cherries, boysenberries, red/black/purple grapes, strawberries, plums, cranberries, rhubarb, red onions, and apples.
- Vitamin D: Studies have shown that getting adequate amounts of vitamin D reduces the risk of both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Among people who already have osteoarthritis, those who have a vitamin D deficiency are more likely to develop worsening disability over time. Getting even the basic daily requirement of vitamin D (at least 600 IU until age 70, and at least 800 IU for folks 70 and older) leads to greater muscle strength, improvement in physical functioning, and preservation of cartilage. Some of the best foods for vitamin D include wild salmon, mackerel (not king), sardines, herring, milk (skim or 1 percent low-fat), soy milk, egg yolks, and UV-treated mushrooms.
- Spices — ginger and turmeric: Certain spices seem to have anti-inflammatory effects and therefore should be considered for arthritis treatment. Among the most promising are ginger and turmeric. Ginger has been shown to lessen the pain of knee osteoarthritis when taken in highly purified, standardized supplement form. Scientific studies have shown that turmeric may help arthritis by suppressing inflammatory body chemicals. The research isn’t strong enough yet to support taking ginger or turmeric in supplement form, but I highly encourage adding generous amounts of these spices to food (they’ll add delicious flavor, too!).
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