How much can what you eat help -- or hurt -- your rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? For decades, researchers have looked into whether there is a link between food and RA. For almost as long, various diets and supplements have claimed to relieve swollen joints and morning stiffness -- or even falsely "cure" RA and "end joint pain forever."
Though many diet claims that promise relief from pain are unproven, they can lure and confuse even the savviest women with RA. Kathy Lubbers, who has had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 20 years and is a CEO at a communications firm, sums up why it's easy to fall for false claims: "When I was in excruciating pain, I'd try anything," she says.
If you have RA, there's no question that a good diet is vitally important. But which diet? And why? Here's the latest on how to eat for your health with RA -- and enjoy every bite.
RA and Nutrition: What to Consider
To figure out what's the best diet for you, it helps to keep in mind some of the nutritional challenges you have with RA. If painful fingers or wrists make it tough to chop vegetables and cook healthy meals, you may be more likely to grab a burger from the drive-through. If your medications give you an upset stomach or make you feel like you don't want to eat, you may wind up skipping meals. If you routinely have an upset stomach or no appetite, you may also be missing important nutrients.
Sometimes your medications, while they may provide relief from RA pain, can bring other nutritional challenges. Taking corticosteroids (like prednisone) may cause your body to get rid of too much potassium or have negative effects on bone health. Methotrexate can lower your folic acid levels.
It's common for women with RA to not get enough vitamin D and calcium. It's especially important that you get enough of those nutrients because having RA -- and taking certain treatments for it -- raises your risk of osteoporosis.
Do Some Foods Cause Joint Inflammation?
Should you cross some foods off your list? Although no scientific studies have found any definitive link between food and RA, some people with RA say that eating certain foods makes their RA worse. For Kathy Lubbers, it's white sugar and cheese. For author M.E.A McNeil, an organic farmer and beekeeper in San Anselmo, Calif., it's foods with chemical additives. For other people with rheumatoid arthritis, it may be vegetables in the nightshade family, such as eggplant and tomatoes.
"Some patients say that certain types of food seem to make their RA worse," says Tracey Robinson, MD, a rheumatologist in Redwood City, Calif., and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. "It may be highly processed foods with a lot of chemicals, foods that are very fatty, red meat, or milk products. It tends to be very individual."