12 Foods To Avoid When You Have Arthritis

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

Arthritis is inflammation in the joint that causes pain or stiffness. It is a larger term used to describe multiple conditions—like osteoarthritis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, or psoriatic arthritis—that affect the joint itself 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 and can affect arthritis symptoms. Read on to learn 12 foods and drinks to avoid when you have arthritis and simple changes that could help 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

1. Red Meat

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

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

2. High-Fat Dairy and Cheese

Dairy is a difficult category because a wide variety of products—from yogurt to cheese to milk to ice cream—are all included in this group. The nutrition 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 associated a high-fat diet with being pro-inflammatory.

If you suspect an intolerance or sensitivity to dairy, trailing eliminating dairy could help determine if you are having mild irritation and increased inflammation from dairy.  

It’s worth noting that some dairy products—yogurt and kefir—have probiotics. Early research suggests that probiotics and a healthy gut microbiome decrease inflammation and could help with arthritis symptoms.

3. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

Omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid is a precursor to inflammation, and omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory. In the average American diet, Omega-6s are over consumed leading to increases in inflammation. Common sources of omega-6 fats are soybeans, corn, safflower, sunflower, canola oil, nuts, and meat.

Instead, try cooking with olive oil, which is primarily monounsaturated fat, and eating more fatty fish—salmon, tuna, and cod—for healthier fat choices.

4. Salt

Salt is an important mineral in the diet, but when too much is consumed it can be harmful to multiple areas of health. Research has associated high salt intake with an increased inflammatory response, and another study showed an increased risk for developing rheumatoid arthritis.

Look for foods that are low in sodium and have no salt added. You can still add flavor to your food by using other herbs and spices such as ground pepper, oregano, cumin, minced garlic or powder, onion powder, and any seasoning mix that doesn’t have any form of salt added to it.

5. Sugar Sweetened Beverages

Soda, fruit juices, sweet tea, and other sweetened drinks have a large amount of sugar in them. It’s recommended to limit total added sugar intake to at most 9 teaspoons of sugar per day and a 12-ounce can of soda has about 36 grams of sugar, over 8 teaspoons. A study found that low to moderate intake of sweetened beverages promoted inflammation.

Try substituting sweetened beverages for an unsweetened version and adding natural flavors like fresh lemon to your drink.

6. Fried Foods

Fried foods are often cooked in oils that are high in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids, and 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.

Try air frying or baking your foods to reduce the fat added to traditional fried foods.

7. Canned Foods

This doesn’t include all canned foods, but more specifically those high in sugar or salt.

Fruit canned in syrup 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—like canned vegetables, meat, and soup—making them high in sodium. Instead, look for products with low sodium or no salt added on the label to keep your salt intake to 2 grams of salt per day.

8. Alcohol

Alcohol can have some anti-inflammatory properties because some types like red wine contain antioxidants. For rheumatoid arthritis, when consumed in moderation—recommended limit of 5 ounces of red wine per day—red wine has been associated with being protective of 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 increased occurrence of gout flares.

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

10. Candy and Dessert

Added sugars don’t offer any nutritional value, are often referred to as “empty calories”, and can increase inflammation. It’s recommended to limit added sugar intake to a max of 9 teaspoons per day. Common food sources of added sugar include candy, desserts, baked goods, ice cream, processed snacks, and condiments like ketchup or barbecue sauce.

Watch Out for Hidden Sugars

Be sure to look at the food label for the total grams of added sugar and ingredients that end in “ose”, like sucrose and fructose.

11. Processed Foods

Highly processed foods such as frozen meals, lunch meat, baked goods, fast food, and packaged snacks are all often made with ingredients that increase inflammation. They usually have refined grains and added sugars, salt, and fat to help keep them shelf-stable and maintain flavor.

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

12. Gluten

Gluten is a protein in grains—wheat, barley, and rye—and functions to provide the structure and texture of the grain products.

Some preliminary research has found that a gluten-free diet has been associated with some improvements for rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and reduced inflammation.

Studies also found an association that people who have celiac disease—an autoimmune disease that reacts to gluten—are more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis.

A Word From Verywell

If you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, simple diet changes could help to manage your symptoms. Research shows that foods high in saturated fat, omega-6 fats, sugar, and salt could increase 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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