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 or gout.

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 all types of arthritis worse by putting extra strain on already burdened joints. Research shows being 20% or more over the ideal body weight causes higher incidence and worse outcomes 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. Unfortunately, these medications can cause increased appetite, fluid retention, and weight gain, causing more strain on the joints. 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:

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

Eating Healthy

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans call for a focus on nutrient-dense foods and beverages from the five basic food groups, plus oils. While needs vary through life stages, in general, a healthy dietary pattern includes a balance of the following:

  • Vegetables: all types—dark green; red and orange; beans, peas, and lentils; starchy; and other vegetables
  • Fruits: juice, whole fruit preferred
  • Grains: whole grain preferred
  • Dairy: including fat-free or low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, and/or lactose-free versions and fortified soy beverages and yogurt as alternatives
  • Protein foods: including lean meats, poultry, and eggs; seafood; beans, peas, and lentils; and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils: including vegetable oils and oils in food, such as seafood and nuts

A healthy lifestyle also means limiting:

  • Extra calories: Regularly eating more than we need will contribute to weight gain and worsen arthritis outcomes.
  • Saturated fat: Too much saturated fat contributes to weight gain, as well as other health conditions such as heart disease.
  • Added sugar: Foods high in refined carbohydrates and sugar provide empty calories and little nutrition, contributing to excess weight gain, and health problems including increased inflammation, high triglycerides, and diabetes.
  • Sodium: Excess salt can contribute to high blood pressure and water retention.
  • Alcohol: Besides being high in calories, alcohol can inhibit the absorption of the body's vitamins and minerals. It can also potentially 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 plant-based, and made up of whole, fresh fruits, veggies, and grains, and as few processed foods as possible. Whole foods are full of anti-inflammatory nutrients such as:

  • Antioxidants: Many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that are powerful anti-inflammatories. Polyphenols are found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, tea, red wine, and dark chocolate. Fruits and veggies with red, purple, or blue pigments contain an especially beneficial anti-oxidant 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. Fiber is an example of a prebiotic.

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 and decrease the effectiveness of immune suppressing medications. You may want to avoid:

  • Echinacea
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Garlic

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. Gout is not an autoimmune disorder, rather it is 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:

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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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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By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer covering arthritis and chronic illness, who herself has been diagnosed with both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.