9 Foods to Avoid With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease. It is also a progressive condition, where managing it means treating symptoms and slowing down its causes. One way to manage your symptoms is through diet changes.

There has been an increasing number of studies in recent years indicating diet plays an important role in risk for RA and disease progression. And just as there are many different types of foods that offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, there are others—like trans fats, red meat, and sodium—that can worsen RA symptoms and increase disease activity.

Here are nine types of foods to avoid to better manage RA symptoms.

1

Trans Fats

Fried Foods

Lauri Patterson/Getty Images 

Trans fats are known for increasing inflammation in the body and are associated with numerous negative health effects. Trans fats to avoid include margarine, butter, lard, coconut oil, and anything that is fried, regardless of the type of oil used.

2

Refined Carbohydrates

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

Refined carbohydrates come in two main types­—sugars and refined grains:

  • Refined sugars can be found in soft drinks and baked goods. You can find refined sugars by reading food labels and looking for anything ending in “ose” like 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 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.

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

Some people with RA have reported improved symptoms after removing red and processed meats from their diets. And those who have embraced a plant-based diet have seen significant symptom improvement. 

4

Gluten

Gluten

 carlosgaw/Getty Images

Gluten—a protein found in many types of grains—may contribute to inflammation in some people. A gluten-free diet may actually ease symptoms for some people.

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, smelly feces, abdominal pain, headaches, and fatigue. If you experience the signs of gluten sensitivity regularly, you may want to remove gluten-containing foods from your diet.

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

5

Aspartame

Diet Soda

 Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Aspartame is a non-nutritive intense artificial sweetener known for promoting inflammation. It is commonly found in soft drinks, especially those considered “diet” or “healthy.”

If you are sensitive to aspartame, your immune system will treat it as a “foreign substance,” and attempt to attack the chemical, which will trigger an inflammatory response. 

6

Monosodium Glutamate

Monosodium Glutamate

 DigiPub/Getty Images

Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a flavor enhancer commonly added to Chinese foods, soups, canned vegetables, and even processed meats. MSG has been found to increase inflammation throughout the body, cause liver damage, and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

7

Dairy Products

Dairy products

fcafotodigital/Getty Images 

For some people with RA, dairy foods may increase inflammation in their bodies. However, researchers don’t have a lot of evidence confirming dairy products affect a huge number of people with RA.

One 2019 report in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition suggests most animal foods, including milk, eggs, and dairy can be a problem for people with RA. This is evidenced in studies showing improvement with a vegan diet.

Interestingly, other studies find dairy generally has anti-inflammatory effects. Milk products may also contain saturated fats, which can contribute to inflammation. If you want to consume dairy products and they don’t affect you negatively, make sure you are picking low-fat options rather than full-fat ones. 

8

Sodium

Sodium

fcafotodigital / Getty Images 

Cutting out salt and foods high in sodium might be a good idea for people 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. 

9

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 with inflammatory arthritis, like RA, tend to have higher levels of AGEs than people who don’t have arthritis. RA AGEs are also early indicators 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.

You will also want to maintain a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise, weight management, and not smoking. If RA symptoms continue despite diet and lifestyle changes, you may want to enlist the help of a nutritionist or dietitian. 

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