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RA and Your Diet: Can Foods Reduce Inflammation?

By Ellen Greenlaw
WebMD Feature

Can your diet help ease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? The research is mixed, but this much is true: RA pain and stiffness is caused by inflammation, and some foods have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body.

While changing your diet won’t eliminate your RA symptoms completely, learning which foods to add to your diet -- and which to avoid -- may help you feel better and improve your overall health.

"Although there's no one diet that’s recommended for people with RA, we do have a few hints about foods that might be helpful," says Alan Friedman, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Rheumatology. "There are some foods that reduce inflammation in the body and others that may make inflammation worse."

Eat to Reduce Inflammation

Research shows that many foods associated with the Mediterranean diet -- fish, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains -- reduce inflammation. Although much of this research has been done in test tubes, some studies -- but not all -- have found a connection between eating these foods and an improvement in RA symptoms.

"There's a good reason to believe these foods reduce inflammation, but they are most effective if you make them part of your daily lifestyle, not just something you eat occasionally," says Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 

Here are a few Mediterranean-inspired foods to try.

  • Fish. "Fish oil has the best research behind it," says Sandon. Many studies link the omega-3 fatty acids in fish and fish oil to reduced inflammation in the body, and reduced morning stiffness and pain in the joints. Fatty fish, such as salmon, albacore tuna, herring, lake trout, sardines, and mackerel, are highest in omega-3s. 

 Fish is also a good source of lean protein. "Getting lean protein at each meal helps protect against the muscle loss RA can cause," Sandon says.

  • Olive Oil. Research has found that a compound in extra-virgin olive oil called oleocanthal also helps reduce inflammation. The stronger-tasting the oil, the more oleocanthal it contains. To add olive oil to your diet without piling on extra calories, try using it in place of other fats, such as butter or margarine.
  • Fruits and Vegetables. Many fruits and vegetables are packed with antioxidants and phytochemicals, compounds found in many plants. Like omega-3 fatty acids, these compounds may help decrease enzymes that cause inflammation in the body. Some fruits and vegetables that are especially potent include tart cherries, apples, citrus fruits, red and yellow onions, shallots, ginger, potatoes, and strawberries. 
  • Whole Grains. Whole grains also contain compounds that help lower inflammation. Research shows that many Americans don't get enough whole grains in their diet. Look for breads, crackers, and cereals that list whole grains or whole wheat as the first ingredient. Other good choices include brown rice and oatmeal.

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