12 Foods To Avoid When You Have Arthritis

Why you should limit sugars, dairy, fats, and more

Arthritis is inflammation in a joint that causes pain or stiffness.

It is an umbrella term used to describe multiple conditions, including osteoarthritis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriatic arthritis. They all affect a joint or the tissues around the joint.

The amount of inflammation you have is affected by many factors, such as diet, activity level, hydration, illness, smoking, and alcohol intake.

Diets high in fat, sugar, refined grains, and salt have been associated with increased inflammation. This could worsen your arthritis symptoms.

This article discusses 12 foods and drinks you may want to avoid when you have arthritis, as well as simple changes you can make to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body.

Man eating cheeseburger, personal perspective view with other fast food on the table

Alexander Spatari / Getty Images

Red Meat

Red meats are higher in fat—particularly saturated fat—than white meats or plant-based protein. Research studies have associated red meat intake with increased levels of inflammation, which may worsen swelling in the joints and arthritis symptoms.

One study found that substituting red meat with a serving of chicken, fish, legumes, or nuts was associated with lower inflammatory biomarkers.

High-Fat Dairy

Dairy is a wide-ranging category that includes everything from yogurt and cheese to milk and ice cream. It follows that the nutritional information, like the amount of fat and sugar, changes significantly based on the product.

In general, avoid full-fat dairy and products with added sugar when you have arthritis, because research has shown a link between a high-fat diet and inflammatory reactions.

If you suspect you are sensitive to or intolerant of dairy, eliminate dairy for a brief period of time. This step could help you discover if you feel better when dairy is absent from your diet.

Note that some dairy products—such as yogurt and kefir—have probiotics, or beneficial bacteria. (Kefir is a milk product that is similar to yogurt.) Research suggests that probiotics and a healthy mix of gut bacteria decrease inflammation and could help reduce arthritis symptoms.

Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, in excess, can worsen inflammation. Common sources of omega-6 fats are soybeans, corn, safflower, sunflower, canola oil, nuts, and meat.

Try cooking with olive oil, which is primarily monounsaturated fat. And eat more fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and cod.

Salt

Your body needs the sodium in salt for many functions, but consuming too much can be asking for trouble (and most of us get way too much). Research has associated high salt intake with greater inflammation and an increased risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Look for foods that are low in sodium and have no added salt. Try flavoring your food with herbs and spices, such as ground pepper, oregano, cumin, minced garlic or powder, or onion powder. They will enrich the taste of your food in ways that salt can't.

Or try a seasoning mix that doesn’t have any added salt. Many grocery stores devote shelves to such seasoning mixes, so the choices are plentiful.

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages

Soda, fruit juices, sweet tea, and other sweetened drinks often contain a large amount of sugar. Try to limit your total added sugar intake to 9 teaspoons per day. (For the sake of comparison, a 12-ounce can of soda has about 36 grams of sugar, or more than 8 teaspoons.)

One study found that even a low to moderate intake of sweetened beverages promotes inflammation.

Try unsweetened versions of your favorite sweetened beverages or add natural flavors (like fresh lemon or lime slices) to your plain drinks.

Fried Foods

Fried foods are often cooked in oils that are high in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids. Both have been associated with increased inflammation and an increase in arthritis symptoms.

Fried foods often have other ingredients—breading, salt, and added sugar—that can lead to inflammation, too. Try air frying or baking your foods instead.

Canned Foods

You don't have to steer clear of all canned goods—just those high in sugar or salt.

For example, fruit canned in syrup usually is high in added sugar, which can increase inflammation. Look for fruit that has been canned in water or fruit juice without added sugar.

Salt is used as a preservative in many canned goods, including vegetables, meat, and soup. Look for products that are either low in sodium or include no added salt. Try to keep your salt intake to 2 grams per day.

Alcohol

Some types of alcohol, like red wine, can have anti-inflammatory properties because they contain antioxidants. In fact, drinking no more than 5 ounces of red wine per day has been shown to promote joint health.

For other types of arthritis, like gout, alcohol can trigger a flare. Studies have associated all types of alcohol with an increased risk for developing gout and more frequent gout flares.

Refined Carbohydrates

When grains are processed into white flour or white rice, most of the fiber and nutrients are stripped away. This leaves the grain as a simple carbohydrate, which is more likely to spike your blood sugar and increase inflammation.

Try to eat more complex carbohydrates, like brown rice, quinoa, and whole grains.

Candy and Dessert

Added sugars don’t offer any nutritional value. This is why they're often referred to as “empty calories.” Worse, they can increase inflammation.

Limit your added sugar intake to those 9 teaspoons per day. Common food sources of added sugar include candy, desserts, baked goods, ice cream, processed snacks, and condiments like ketchup and barbecue sauce.

Watch Out for Hidden Sugars

Read food labels to find the grams of added sugar and look for ingredients that end in “ose,” like sucrose and fructose.

Processed Foods

Highly processed foods such as frozen meals, lunchmeat, baked goods, fast food, and packaged snacks are often made with ingredients that increase inflammation. They usually have refined grains and added sugars, salt, and fat to help them last on store shelves and maintain their flavor.

Eating a highly processed diet is associated with increased obesity and insulin resistance, which could indirectly worsen arthritis symptoms.

Gluten

Gluten is a protein in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. Some research has found that a gluten-free diet can benefit rheumatoid arthritis patients by reducing inflammation.

Studies have also found an association between people who have celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease in which gluten triggers inflammation in the gut and elsewhere in the body.

Not everyone is sensitive to gluten, though. You might try avoiding it to see if your arthritis symptoms improve.

Summary

"Arthritis" literally means "joint inflammation." And food can play a role in the amount of inflammation you deal with every day.

If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, simple diet changes could help manage your symptoms. Research shows that foods high in saturated fat, omega-6 fats, sugar, and salt could intensify arthritis symptoms. Instead, aim for a diet full of vegetables, fruit, omega-3s, and whole grains to help reduce inflammation in your joints.

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13 Sources
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