There are no foods that cause lupus or that can cure it. Still, good nutrition is an important part of an overall treatment plan for the disease.
In general, people with lupus should aim for a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. It should also include moderate amounts of meats, poultry, and oily fish.
If you have lupus, following a varied, healthy diet may help:
- Reduce inflammation and other symptoms
- Maintain strong bones and muscles
- Combat the side effects of medications
- Achieve or maintain a healthy weight
- Reduce the risk of heart disease
Here’s what you need to know about lupus, diet, and nutrition to gain these important benefits.
Reducing Inflammation and Other Symptoms
Foods with possible anti-inflammatory properties include fruits and vegetables, which are rich in substances called antioxidants. In addition, foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, ground flaxseed, canola oil, and olive oil may also help fight inflammation.
Saturated fats, on the other hand, can raise cholesterol levels and may contribute to inflammation. So they should be limited. Sources of saturated fats include fried foods, commercial baked goods, creamed soups and sauces, red meat, animal fat, processed meat products, and high-fat dairy foods. That includes whole milk, half and half, cheeses, butter, and ice cream.
One food to avoid is alfalfa sprouts. Alfalfa tablets have been associated with lupus flares or a lupus-like syndrome that includes muscle pain, fatigue, abnormal blood test results, and kidney problems. These problems may be due to a reaction to an amino acid found in alfalfa sprouts and seeds. This amino acid can activate the immune system and increase inflammation in people with lupus. Garlic may also stimulate the immune system.
Maintaining Strong Bones and Muscles
Good nutrition is important for strong bones and muscles. For people with lupus, bone health is a particular concern. That’s because medications used to treat it can increase the risk for osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become less dense and break easily.
- 1% or 1/2% skim milk
- low-fat, low-sodium yogurt
- low-fat cheese
If you cannot drink milk, good alternatives include:
- lactose-free milk
- soy milk
- almond milk
- juices that are fortified with calcium and Vitamin D
Dark green vegetables are another source of calcium.
If you don’t get enough calcium in your diet, your doctor will probably recommend a calcium supplement.
Combatting the Side Effects of Medications
A diet rich in calcium and vitamin D can help counteract the bone-damaging effects of corticosteroids.
Diet can also be helpful in combatting other drug side effects. For example, a low-sodium diet can help reduce fluid retention and lower blood pressure, which can be elevated with corticosteroid use.
A diet high in folic acid, such as found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, and fortified breads and cereals, or a folic acid supplement is important if you are taking methotrexate (Rheumatrex). For nausea caused by medications, eat small frequent meals and foods that are easy to digest. Try dry cereals, breads, and crackers. Also avoid greasy, spicy, and acidic foods.
If corticosteroid or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Naprosyn, Alleve) cause stomach upset and irritation, taking them with meals may help. But let your doctor know that you are having some stomach upset from the drugs.
Helping Achieve or Maintain a Healthy Weight
Lupus may be associated with unhealthy weight loss or weight gain. So eating to achieve a healthy weight is important.
Weight loss and poor appetite, common among people recently diagnosed with lupus, can result from the illness itself. It can also result from medications that cause stomach upset or mouth sores. Weight gain can be the result of inactivity. It can also be caused by the corticosteroids used to control the disease.
If weight loss or gain is a problem, it is important to speak with your doctor or nurse. The doctor or nurse can assess your diet and suggest a program to help control your weight. The program will probably include a low-fat diet and exercise. A registered dietitian can help you design a diet specifically for your needs and lifestyle.
Reducing the Risk of Heart Disease
If your doctor finds you have risk factors for heart disease -- including high blood pressure or high cholesterol -- a low-fat diet and exercise may help. Your doctor may prescribe a low-sodium diet for high blood pressure.
Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids from fish or fish oils may improve some risk factors for heart disease like high triglycerides and blood pressure. Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- lake trout
- rainbow trout
- ground flaxseed
- canola oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil
These foods should be a part of a heart-healthy meal plan.