Foods to Avoid With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory disease, is a progressive condition. Managing RA involves getting treatment for your symptoms, as well as treatment to slow down disease progression. One way to manage your condition is through diet changes.

Studies indicate that diet plays an important role in the risk of RA and disease progression. And just as many different types of foods offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, others—like trans fats, red meat, and sodium—can worsen RA symptoms and increase disease activity.

1

Trans Fats

Fried Foods

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If you have RA, it is best to avoid trans fats. This type of fat is known for increasing inflammation in the body and is associated with numerous negative health effects.

Sources of trans fats include margarine, shortening, non-dairy creamer that's made with partially hydrogenated oils, anything that is fried in partially hydrogenated oils, and many shelf-stable pastries, donuts, and pies.

2

Refined Carbohydrates

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Hillary's Chocolate Chip Cookies. Esther Chou / Getty Images

Refined carbohydrates can worsen RA symptoms. They come in two main types­—sugars and refined grains:

  • Refined sugars can be found in soft drinks and baked goods. You can identify refined sugars by reading food labels and looking for anything ending in “ose,” like dextrose, glucose, and fructose.
  • Refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Some examples of refined grains are white flour, white bread, and white rice.

A study reported in 2018 in the journal Arthritis Care & Research involved diet surveys sent to 300 people in a single-center RA registry at a large academic center. The study participants were asked if they consumed each of 20 foods, and if those made symptoms better, worse, or didn’t affect them at all.

What the researchers found was sugary drinks and desserts were the most frequently associated with worsening RA symptoms. 

3

Processed and Red Meats

red meat

 kajakiki/Getty Images

Red meats and processed meats have been linked to inflammation and increased RA symptoms. Diets high in these meats can produce high levels of inflammatory proteins, including cytokines, interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and homocysteine.

  • Red meat includes beef, lamb, mutton, pork, venison, veal, and goat.
  • Processed meats are those which have been preserved through smoking, curing, salting, or adding preservatives. Examples include sausage, bacon, hot dogs, deli meats, and ham.

Some people who have RA have reported improved symptoms after removing red meats and processed meats from their diets.

4

Gluten

Gluten

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Gluten—a protein found in many types of grains—may contribute to inflammation for some people. A gluten-free diet may actually ease RA symptoms if you have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

  • Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, smelly feces, abdominal pain, headaches, and fatigue. If you experience the signs of gluten sensitivity, your doctor may advise you to remove gluten-containing foods from your diet.
  • Additionally, if you have celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, you can experience intestinal inflammation and damage from consuming gluten.

Gluten-containing foods include wheat, rye, barley, or malt in various forms (malted milk for milkshakes, malt syrup, etc.), wheat starches, and more. 

5

Dairy Products

Dairy products

fcafotodigital/Getty Images 

For some people who have RA, dairy foods may increase systemic inflammation. However, there is not a significant amount of research about the effects of dairy on RA, and the results are mixed.

  • One 2019 report in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that most animal foods, including milk, eggs, and dairy can be a problem for people with RA.
  • Interestingly, other studies find that dairy generally has anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Milk products may also contain saturated fats, which can contribute to inflammation.

If you don't experience negative effects from dairy products, try to select low-fat options rather than full-fat. 

6

Sodium

Sodium

fcafotodigital / Getty Images 

Cutting out salt and foods that are high in sodium might be a good idea for people living with RA. Foods high in sodium content include canned soups, some cheeses, processed meats, and a variety of processed foods.

A 62-day mouse study reported in 2015 by the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases found low salt diets can reduce the severity of RA in comparison to high salt diets. The researchers determined this because the mice on the low sodium diet were experiencing low cartilage breakdown and bone destruction, in addition to lower inflammatory markers. 

7

Foods High in AGEs

Breakfast with Sunny side up eggs and Sausage Breakfast with Sunny side up eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast
Lauri Patterson/Getty Images

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs)—molecules created through reactions between sugars and proteins or fats—naturally exist in uncooked animal fats and are formed with some cooking methods.

High protein and high-fat foods—especially fried foods—have the highest amounts of AGEs. French fries, mayonnaise, American cheese, and processed meats are also loaded with AGEs.

Research shows people who have inflammatory arthritis, like RA, tend to have higher levels of AGEs than people who don’t have arthritis. 

You also have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease if you have RA, and AGEs are also an early indicator of cardiovascular disease.

A Word From Verywell

Anti-inflammatory foods are helpful for managing inflammation and other RA symptoms. An anti-inflammatory diet should include plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and healthy fats, including olive oil and nuts. Some people experience improvement of RA with a vegan diet or a plant-based diet.

You will also need to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, weight management, and not smoking, possibly with guidance from a nutritionist or dietitian. 

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