If you consider heart disease a man's disease, it's time to reconsider -- especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis. Post-menopausal women have a rate of heart disease two to three times higher than younger women. For women with inflammatory diseases like RA, the risk is even greater, making a heart-healthy lifestyle – including eating healthy foods – even more important.
Wondering how the answer to "what's for dinner?" (as well as lunch, breakfast, and snacks) can influence your heart disease risk and your arthritis? Read on, and follow these guides for making the best food choices:
Eat to Fight Inflammation
In women with RA, the same inflammatory process that makes your joints sore, hot, and swollen may contribute to artery-clogging atherosclerosis and the formation of clots, which ultimately may lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Research shows that certain foods may contribute to inflammation, while others may help fight it. Foods that may contribute to inflammation include those high in omega-6 fatty acids, found in corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean, and cottonseed oil. They are prevalent in many snack foods, fried foods, and margarines as well as in meats and egg yolks. While researchers know that these foods are bad for the heart, it is not clear what affect, if any, these types of food have on RA.
Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, may reduce inflammation. Good sources include cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and herring. Omega-3s may lessen joint pain, shorten the amount of time that morning stiffness lasts, and even enable some people with arthritis to reduce their dose or stop taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). To get more omega-3s in your diet, try adding about two 3-ounce servings of salmon or other oily fish to your menu each week.
Another inflammation-fighter that might surprise you is fiber. Although researchers have known that fiber is heart-healthy, it also appears to lower inflammation. Studies suggest it reduces C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation found in the blood. A high CRP level can be associated with RA or heart disease. Stock up on fruits, vegetables, and other high-fiber foods.
Eat to Lose or Maintain Weight
Losing weight – if you need to – or maintaining a proper weight gives you a double benefit: It lowers your risk of heart disease and the pressure your body puts on painful joints. If you are overweight, losing weight may also help reduce inflammation, because fat cells produce inflammatory chemicals.
The recipe for maintaining a proper weight is simple, although it isn't always easy: Start by figuring out how many calories you need each day and don't eat more than you can burn off in a day. If you want to lose weight, of course, you'll need to eat less than you burn. Get in the habit of checking calorie amounts in the foods you eat. The labels on packaged goods, many cookbooks, web sites, and even cell phone applications give the calorie counts of common foods. Use them to make a meal plan and be conscious of what you eat. Keeping a food diary for a while can help.
In general, stay away from fatty snacks and fill up on whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables that have lots of fiber. High in nutrients and low in calories, these foods will help you feel full. And that will help you control your weight, in addition to being good for your overall health.