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Despite the claims you may see or read sometimes, there is no magic arthritis diet. No single food or special eating plan can slow arthritis or reduce pain. A well-balanced diet is important for your overall health and energy level, of course. But when it comes to managing osteoarthritis, the single most important thing you can do is to maintain a healthy weight.

If you’ve dieted before, you already know that’s not easy. But arthritis sufferers have an added reason to try to drop even a few pounds. Excess weight puts added stress on joints, particularly knees, causing pain and worsening arthritis damage.

“Being just 10 pounds overweight increases the force on your knees by 30 to 40 pounds with every step you take,” says Kevin Fontaine, PhD, assistant professor of rheumatology at Johns Hopkins University. Small wonder, then, that being obese is linked to a four- to five-fold increase in the risk of developing osteoarthritis.

If you’ve tried and failed to lose weight before, don’t be discouraged. You don’t have to lose a lot to have an impact on arthritis. “Almost any weight loss can have beneficial effects, especially in reducing pain,” says Fontaine. And though losing weight and keeping it off isn’t easy, some people do succeed. By learning how these losers succeeded, researchers have identified six key winning strategies.

1. Set Realistic Weight Loss Goals When You Have OA

Many people set themselves up for failure by pegging their goals too high. “If you begin with unreasonable goals, you’re going to be disappointed, and for too many people, that spells the end,” says nutrition and exercise counselor Ruth Ann Carpenter, RD, author of Healthy Eating Every Day (Human Kinetics).

If you’re overweight or obese, start out with a goal of lowering your weight by 5%. (That’s just 10 pounds for someone who weighs 200 pounds.) Once you reach your first goal, set another goal of losing another 5%. Setting doable goals is especially important when you have the challenge of arthritis, since you may be limited in the amount of physical activity you can do.

2. Find Your Diet Strategy

No single weight loss plan has ever been shown to work for everyone. Some people succeed by carefully counting calories. Others lose weight and keep it off by eliminating a few high-calorie foods from their diets, such as sugared beverages or high-fat desserts. Among participants in the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who have successfully lost an average of 66 pounds and kept the weight off for at least five years, just over half used a formal program, such as Weight Watchers of Jenny Craig. The others successfully lost weight on their own. 

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach,” says Rena Wing, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, who helped create the Registry. Indeed, many successful losers try several approaches before they find the one that works best for them. If you’ve tried and failed, think about what worked and what didn’t for you. Consider the kinds of lasting changes you’re most likely to be able to make. Choosing the approach you’re most comfortable with is the key to making healthy changes you can live with.

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