The Link Between Diet and Arthritis

A healthy diet is important for everyone, and especially so when you have arthritis. Evidence shows how you eat can influence some arthritis symptoms.

The link between diet and arthritis is complex. To find the dietary changes most likely to help you, you need to know what's best for your type of arthritis.

This article will walk you through the latest research so you can make informed decisions about making nutritional changes. Learn the impact of your arthritis type, weight, and food allergies, plus the advantages of healthy eating and an anti-inflammatory diet.

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Why Arthritis Type Matters

"Arthritis" is an umbrella term for more than 100 conditions that involve joint pain. Many arthritis types are similar but some of them have differences and special considerations you need to know about when it comes to your diet.

The biggest distinction to make is whether your arthritis is:

So, for example, if you have rheumatoid arthritis or another autoimmune disease, you may want to avoid foods that rev up your immune system. But that may not help with osteoarthritis.

Inflammatory vs. Non-inflammatory

While osteoarthritis is classified as "non-inflammatory," joint damage can cause inflammation in nearby soft tissues. This is a standard type of inflammation, just like what you'd get with an injury, and is the result of damage rather than the cause. In autoimmune disease, inflammation is caused by the immune system and is a major cause of symptoms, not the result of them.

Excess Body Weight

Excess body weight makes arthritis worse by putting extra strain on already burdened joints. This is true of all types. Research shows being 20% or more over the ideal body weight causes more problems with arthritis.

The weight-bearing joints appear to be the most affected by extra weight. These include:

  • Spine
  • Knees
  • Hips
  • Ankles
  • Feet

The increased pain can lead to a sedentary lifestyle. That can make you gain more weight, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Inflammatory forms of arthritis are sometimes treated with corticosteroids such as prednisone. It can cause increased appetite, fluid retention, and weight gain. This makes diet and activity especially important for controlling your weight.

A study on knee arthritis showed that losing one pound reduced four pounds of pressure on the knees. So while losing more can help more, you don't have to lose a lot to start seeing a benefit.

Obesity is also tied to:

  • Higher levels of inflammation
  • Increased autoimmune disease activity
  • More gout attacks
  • Faster cartilage loss in OA
  • Risk of developing OA
  • Higher levels of joint replacement surgery in OA

Even if you don't have OA right now, it's worth noting things that could help lower your risk of developing it. OA is extremely common and would add more pain and disability to your pre-existing arthritis.

Eating Healthy

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for a focus on nutrient-dense foods and beverages from the four food groups. While needs vary through life stages, in general, a healthy nutritional lifestyle focuses on:

  • Eating a variety of healthy foods: Eat from all 4 basic food groups (bread and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, and dairy) to obtain the needed forty-plus essential nutrients to maintain good health.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Less weight equates with less strain on weight-bearing joints. Less strain equates with less pain.
  • Eating adequate amounts of starch and fiber: Starches such as bread, rice, beans, pasta, and potatoes give the body energy. Fiber, the undigested portion of the plants you eat, adds bulk and helps with the process of elimination.

And if you have gout, you need to know about uric acid levels and how your diet affects them. That's unlikely to benefit someone with autoimmune arthritis.

A healthy lifestyle also means avoiding:

  • High fat, saturated fat, cholesterol: Increased amounts of fat contribute to weight gain and obesity.
  • High sugar: Sugar provides empty calories and little nutrition, contributing to excess weight gain.
  • High sodium: Excess salt can contribute to high blood pressure and water retention.
  • Alcohol: Besides being high in calories, alcohol can the body's vitamins and minerals. It also potentially can interact with medications for arthritis.

Anti-Inflammatory Diet

An anti-inflammatory diet is one way to ensure you're getting a diet that's not only healthy but minimizes your inflammation. Many foods are known to decrease inflammation in your body.

What to Eat

An anti-inflammatory diet is largely made up of whole, fresh foods and as few processed foods as possible.

  • Antioxidants: Many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that are powerful anti-inflammatories. Those with red, purple, or blue pigments contain an especially beneficial one called anthocyanins.
  • Fiber: Fiber comes from plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids: These are in fatty fish, some nuts and seeds, and some plant-derived oils.
  • Prebiotics: Prebiotics are food for the beneficial bacteria (probiotics) that live in your digestive tract. They can help you with a healthy gut microbiome.

Many foods contain more than one of these beneficial ingredients. Emphasizing those in your diet can make it easier to get everything you're looking for.

FOODS BY FOOD GROUP ANTIOXIDANTS HIGH FIBER OMEGA3 PREBIOTICS
FRUITS
Bananas
Berries  
Cherries   
Citrus fruits
Grapes       
Melon
Nectarines     
Peaches         
Plums       
Pomegranates         
VEGETABLES
Artichokes
Asparagus
Broccoli
Brussels sprouts
Cabbage, especially red      
Eggplant       
Kale
Lettuce, dark green and red
Onion         
Purple cauliflower       
Purple sweet potatoes       
Red radishes       
GRAINS
Whole-wheat bread
Oats and oatmeal
Brown rice
Quinoa
PROTEINS
Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout)
Black beans
Small red beans
Flaxseed, chia seeds
Walnuts
Oils (flaxseed, soybean, canola, olive)

What to Avoid

Some foods can give your immune system a boost. While that could help people avoid illnesses like the common cold, it may also worsen your autoimmune disease. You may want to avoid:

  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Garlic
  • Echinacea

Also, watch out for supplements or teas that claim to boost the immune system.

Gout and Uric Acid

Gout is a special case when it comes to diet. It's caused by a build-up of uric acid, which can form crystals in your joints. Those crystals are like tiny needles. They can cause extreme pain.

Uric acid is the result of your body breaking down a substance called purines from food. To keep uric acid from building up, you should avoid:

  • Alcohol and nonalcoholic beer
  • High-fructose corn syrup, found in soda and many packaged foods
  • Gravy, organ meat, and red meat
  • Seafood, including fish and shellfish

You may also want to limit how much chicken and fish you eat. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best diet for preventing gout symptoms.

Food Allergies

Some people believe particular foods can trigger their arthritis flares. No specific food has been implicated as a cause of arthritis or its symptoms. But it is known that foods can alter the function of your immune system.

With regard to arthritis, possible offenders may include:

  • Additives and preservatives
  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate
  • Dairy products
  • Nightshade vegetables (e.g., tomatoes, peppers)
  • Red meats
  • Salt
  • Sugar

Even if food sensitivities were a cause of arthritis, not every person would be found to be sensitive to the same food.

To see if a particular food or food group makes your arthritis worse, try an elimination diet. Eliminate the suspect food, then eventually add it back in to see whether arthritis symptoms improve.

Is It an Autoallergy?

Autoimmune disease and allergies may be more alike than previously thought. Researchers are investigating whether some autoimmune disease is actually autoallergic—which means an allergic reaction to your own tissues. This research is still in the earliest stages.

Summary

Your diet can have a big impact on arthritis symptoms. Take into consideration what type of arthritis you have when making dietary decisions.

Excess body weight puts extra strain on arthritic joints. Even losing small amounts of weight can give you some relief. Try staying active and work toward losing extra weight.

An anti-inflammatory diet is one way to eat a healthy, balanced diet and fight arthritis symptoms. Focus on antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and prebiotics. Avoid things that claim to boost your immune system.

If you have gout or food allergies, you have dietary needs beyond inflammation. For gout, avoid purines that lead to uric acid crystals in your joints. To see if you have food allergies, try an elimination diet.

A Word From Verywell

Well-balanced nutritious meals are important for overall good health. It's not always possible to shop for and cook with fresh ingredients when you're battling arthritis, so look for simple ways to eat right.

For instance, you can eat raw vegetables or salads with dinner or prepare large batches of soup and freeze some for when you need an easy meal.

Make sure you involve your healthcare provider in your diet decisions. They can help you understand your specific needs based on your whole health history, including your diagnoses and the medications you take.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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