Osteoarthritis Diet: 8 Foods to Avoid

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

If you have osteoarthritis, then you may know that your diet affects how you feel.

The relationship between joint health and diet isn’t as clear as it is with other conditions, like diabetes or heart disease. But over time, the quality of the food you eat affects the health of your cartilage, synovial fluid, tissues, and the amount of inflammation in your body. (Synovial fluid lubricates joints, making it easier to move.)

Knowing which foods have been associated with a faster progression of osteoarthritis can help you maintain your activity level and quality of life as you grow older.

This article identifies the eight foods that people with osteoarthritis should avoid. These foods often lead to inflammation, which irritates the condition and intensifies pain.

Foods to Avoid With Osteoarthritis

Verywell / Laura Porter

Western Diet Portends Trouble

Researchers have studied 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.

Meanwhile, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fish, whole grains, and legumes was related to slowing the progression of the condition.

Below are eight foods that are associated with increased inflammation that people with osteoarthritis should limit or avoid:

What Is Osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is caused by the breakdown of cartilage in the joint. It is the most common type of arthritis—often referred to as the "wear and tear" arthritis. It most often afflicts the hands, hips, and knees.

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 undermine the health of your joints.

2. Salt

Salt is an important part of a healthy diet because it helps your body function properly. Too much salt can cause you to retain too much fluid. This, in turn, can increase inflammation and swelling in the joints.

Most dietary sodium (about 70%) comes from processed and prepared foods. So an easy way to keep your sodium intake in check is to check the nutrition labels on the food you buy.

Use the "% of daily value" (DV) column as a tool as you shop. Five percent DV or less of sodium is low; 20% or more is too high.

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 extend shelf life.

Trans fat increases "bad cholesterol" levels (low-density lipoprotein, or LDL). It has been closely linked with systemic inflammation.

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 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. They all spell bad news for people with osteoarthritis.

5. Omega-6 Fatty Acids

There are two main polyunsaturated fatty acids in the diet: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. Each has a different effect on the body.

Omega-3 fatty acids produce anti-inflammatory properties while Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory.

In general, Americans tend to consume too many omega-6 fatty acids and too few omega-3 acids. If you have osteoarthritis, you can reverse this habit by consuming more soybeans, corn, safflower oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, poultry, and seeds. Instead of red meat, satisfy your need for protein with more dairy-, legume-, and nut-based portions. (Nuts and legumes are similar, but legumes store their seeds in pods, like peas and green beans.)

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 fat and sugar makes these types of dairy products more inflammatory.

7. Alcohol

Chronic alcohol intake is associated with systemic inflammation that damages the body over time.

The CDC recommends a moderate alcohol intake to reduce short- and long-term health risks, or no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.

Some alcoholic drinks are also high in sugar, which adds to their inflammatory effect.

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. But if you're experiencing a lot of inflammation, you could try limiting MSG in your diet and then watch closely for any changes in how you feel.

Summary

Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that is often called "wear and tear" arthritis. Obesity is a risk factor for osteoarthritis because extra weight places stress on the joints. Similarly, it's important to watch what you eat when you have osteoarthritis because the wrong food can cause more than weight gain; it can also lead to inflammation, which puts pressure on the joints. Some of the "usual suspects" appear on this list, like salt, sugar, fats, and carbs. But at least one (MSG) may surprise you.

A Word From Verywell

Maintaining the health of your joints can help slow down the wear and tear that is common during aging. It's an even bigger priority if you have osteoarthritis. Physical activity, stretching, posture, and nutrition are all lifestyle factors that can help keep your joints healthy and pain-free.

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