Lupus Diet and Nutrition

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on September 13, 2023
4 min read

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.

Lupus is an inflammatory disease. So it’s possible, though not proven, that foods that fight inflammation could help lupus symptoms.

Foods that could help inflammation

These include foods rich in antioxidants like fruits and vegetables. And also food groups rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lessen inflammation, like:

  • Fatty fish
  • Nuts and ground flaxseed
  • Oils like olive and canola

Foods that could cause inflammation

These include processed and fatty foods high in saturated fats, which could raise cholesterol levels and may contribute to inflammation. Sources include:

  • Fried foods
  • Commercial baked goods
  • Creamed soups and sauces
  • Red meat
  • Animal fat
  • Processed meat products
  • High-fat dairy like whole milk, cream, cheeses, butter, and ice cream

One specific food that could be a problem is alfalfa sprouts. Alfalfa tablets in particular seem to cause lupus flares or  lupus-like signs and symptoms such as tiredness, muscle pain, kidney issues, and unusual blood test results.

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 in a similar way. Scientists continue to study the issue.

Foods to help counter weakening bones

Good nutrition is important for strong bones. For people with lupus, bone health is a particular concern. That’s because medications used to treat it -- especially corticosteroids -- can increase the risk for osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become less dense and break easily.

Eating foods high in calcium and vitamin D is important for bone health. When buying dairy products, choose ones that are either low-fat or fat-free. Good choices include:

  • 1% or 1/2% skim milk
  • Low-fat, low-sodium yogurt
  • Low-fat cheese

If you cannot drink milk, good alternatives include:

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.

Foods to help counter folic acid loss

One of the side effects of the lupus drug methotrexate (Rheumatrex) is that it interferes with the way your body processes folic acid. That means you might need to get more of it from your diet. You can get more folic acid from foods like:

  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Fortified breads and cereals
  • Folic acid supplement (ask your doctor about this)

Foods and diet tricks to help counter nausea and upset stomach

To start with, it’s a good idea to avoid greasy, spicy, and acidic foods. After that, try to eat small frequent meals made up of foods that are easy to digest such as:

  • Dry cereals
  • Breads
  • Crackers

If corticosteroid or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen (Motrin) or naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve) 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.

Foods to help lower blood pressure

Some lupus meds, like corticosteroids, can raise your blood pressure. Look for low-salt foods that help cut down on the amount of fluid that your body holds (fluid retention). This can help lower your blood pressure. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a good place to start.

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.

People with lupus have higher risk of heart disease compared with the general population. That makes a heart-healthy diet an important part of a lupus treatment plan.

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:

  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Mackerel
  • Tuna
  • Halibut
  • Trout
  • Walnuts
  • Pecans
  • Canola oil, walnut oil, and flaxseed oil

These foods should be a part of a heart-healthy meal plan. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist if you are unsure.