Osteoarthritis Diet: 8 Foods to Avoid

Why you should limit fats, carbs, alcohol, and more

The foods you eat affect every area of your health. The relationship between joint health and diet isn’t as clear as other conditions—like diabetes or heart disease—but the quality of the food you eat over time affects the health of your cartilage, synovial fluid, tissue repair, and the overall amount of inflammation in the body.

Making informed choices about the food in your diet has long term benefits for your health. Knowing which foods have been associated with an increased progression of osteoarthritis can help with maintaining activity level and high quality of life as you grow older.

Woman massaging painful wrist at work repetitive strain injury

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What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage in the joint. It is the most common type of arthritis and is referred to as the normal wear and tear that happens in joints during aging.

Research has looked at the relationship between osteoarthritis progression and nutrition. They found that following a Western diet—high in red meat, sugar, fat, salt, and refined grains—was associated with increased progression of osteoarthritis and high rates of obesity. While a diet high in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and legumes was related to decreased disease progression.

Below are eight foods that are associated with increased inflammation and should be limited for people who have osteoarthritis.

1. Sugar

Added sugar is present in many processed foods, like baked goods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and candy. Condiments like barbeque sauce also contain large amounts of added sugar. Research has associated excessive sugar intake with increased inflammation and a higher likelihood of becoming obese, which can negatively impact the health of your joints.

2. Salt

Salt is an important part of a healthy diet because it helps maintain fluid balance by drawing water to it and retaining fluid. When salt is overconsumed, too much fluid is retained which can increase inflammation and swelling in the joints.

3. Saturated Fat and Trans Fats

A diet high in saturated fat is associated with increased inflammation in the body. Foods that are high in saturated fat include butter, red meat, processed meats, full-fat dairy, fast food, fried foods, and coconut.

Small amounts of trans fatty acids naturally occur in some animal products. It can also be artificially created during processing and is used to add texture, flavor, and increase the food's shelf life. Trans fat increases bad cholesterol levels and has been strongly associated with systemic inflammation.

Artificially produced trans fats were banned by the FDA and were required to be removed from the market by June 2018. There may still be some naturally occurring trans fat in shortening, margarine, fast food, and other processed foods that could be increasing the inflammation in your body.

4. Refined Carbs

During processing, fiber and nutrients are removed from grains, leaving them without most of their nutritional value. White flour and rice are simple carbs, which are more easily digested and absorbed into the bloodstream causing spikes in your blood sugar.

Many foods with refined grains—such as breakfast cereals, baked goods, snacks, and sweets—are highly processed with added sugar, salt, and fat.

5. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

There are two main polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet—omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids—and each type has a different effect on the body. Omega-3 fatty acids produce anti-inflammatory effects, while Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.

The intake of omega-6 fatty acids is high in the typical American diet and omega-3 intake is often lower than the recommended amount. Sources of omega-6s include soybeans, corn, safflower oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, meat, poultry, nuts, and seeds.

6. Dairy

Full-fat dairy products are high in saturated fats and are associated with increased levels of inflammation. Cheese, whole milk, cream, and butter are all high in saturated fat.

In addition to being high in fat, some dairy products—like ice cream, sweetened yogurt, and chocolate milk—are also high in sugar. The combination of being high in both fat and sugar makes these types of dairy products more inflammatory.

7. Alcohol

Chronic alcohol intake is associated with systemic inflammation and damages the body over time, especially with excessive alcohol intake. According to the CDC, moderate intake is considered one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Depending on the type of alcoholic drink, it can also be high in sugar, which adds to the inflammatory effect of the drink.

8. MSG

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is a food additive that acts as a flavor enhancer. It is often used in Chinese food, soups, processed meats, and canned foods. Some research studies have hinted at a possible relationship between MSG and negative health effects like headaches, sweating, nausea, inflammation, and weakness.

Research is inconclusive about the effects of MSG and it is considered safe by the FDA. If you are experiencing a lot of inflammation, you could trial limiting MSG in your diet to assess for any changes in inflammation.

A Word From Verywell

Maintaining the health of your joints can help to slow down the wear and tear that is common during aging. Physical activity, stretching, posture, and nutrition are all lifestyle factors that can help with keeping your joints healthy and pain-free. Eating foods that are associated with reduced inflammation can also support your joint health. When in doubt, pick food options like fruits, vegetables and whole grains. 

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