8 Diet Tips for Rheumatoid Arthritis Relief

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on December 17, 2015
4 min read

Food might not be the first thing on your mind when you have the stiffness, swelling, and pain of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But what if it could provide some relief?

It’s no substitute for your medicine, but it can help, says Anca D. Askanase, MD, clinical director of rheumatology at Columbia University.

Take a cue from the healthy Mediterranean population and make extra-virgin olive oil a staple in your dressings and sauces. Swap saturated fat like butter and red meat with healthier choices like olive oil. It can ease inflamed joints and lessen morning stiffness, says Lona Sandon, RD, an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

The inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis can raise your chances of heart disease, so adding healthy fats to your diet is good for more than your joints, Sandon says, who also has RA. What’s more, virgin olive oil contains a compound that has anti-inflammatory properties similar to nonsteroidal medications (your doctor may refer to them as NSAIDs) like ibuprofen. Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of olives and can fight inflammation more than refined light versions.

Legumes like lentils and beans are chock full of protein, vitamins, and minerals. They’re also a great source of fiber. They can keep you feeling full on fewer calories, Sandon says, which can help you drop extra pounds.

Keeping a healthy weight is important for people with RA, she adds, because it reduces pressure on your weight-bearing joints. It also cuts the inflammation in your system that’s a byproduct of body fat.

Fiber-rich foods can lower your levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance that is a sign of inflammation in your body.

Bright vegetables like bell peppers, carrots, and dark, leafy greens are full of powerful nutrients. They also have antioxidants, which may help reduce joint damage caused by inflammation, Sandon says.

Veggies like kale and broccoli are good sources. They can lower signs of inflammation in your body, like pain and swelling. Plus, adding fiber-rich, low-calorie vegetables is another way to help you lose weight and ease stress on your joints.

If pain in your fingers and wrists makes chopping and food prep hard, use pre-cut veggies and fruits you can find at the grocery store, Sandon says.

Fish is high in vitamin D. You really need this bone-building nutrient in your diet because RA can put you at increased risk for poor bone health. “There is often bone loss around inflamed joints, and steroid medications can be hard on your bones,” Askanase says. Plus, pain might stop you from getting regular exercise, which could also make your bones weaker.

Just 3 ounces of salmon can provide more vitamin D than you need for an entire day. You can also find many brands of milk and orange juice with vitamin D.

Cold-water fish like salmon also offers omega-3 fatty acids, a good fat that can help keep your heart healthy and lower inflammation, Sandon says.

Walnuts are another good source of omega-3s. Along with vitamins and minerals, nuts are a healthy source of fat in general. How healthy? One study showed that people who ate the most nuts for over 15 years were half as likely to die from inflammatory diseases like RA, compared with those who ate the least. Still, nuts are high in calories, so limit your portion to around an ounce.

Sip on some steamy mugs of green tea throughout the day. Not only will you get hydration without calories, but it may also ease your RA symptoms. That’s because green tea has unique antioxidants that zap inflammation compounds.

The brew can also help your heart by improving blood cholesterol numbers. Just be sure to enjoy it straight up. Proteins in milk can bind to the antioxidants in green tea and reduce their power.

Swap out white bread and rice for whole grains like brown rice, oats, and quinoa. This can lower levels of compounds in your body that trigger flares. “Whole grains contain levels of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals not found in refined versions that make them more beneficial for those with arthritis,” Sandon says. Whole grains may also help with weight loss.

You might find a gluten-free diet helps RA symptoms. If you want to try it, steer clear of grains like wheat and barley, Askanase says. You can still enjoy plenty of gluten-free whole grains including quinoa, millet, oats, and amaranth.

Grapefruit and oranges have high amounts of antioxidants to help soothe burning joints. You also get a good dose of vitamin C, which can help limit the wear on your joints, Sandon says. Eating a lot of grapefruit has been known to lower the amount of CRP. You can snack on a tasty clementine, add grapefruit segments to salads, or blend peeled oranges into smoothies.

When it comes to making big changes in your diet, you can’t do a little here and a little there and expect it to help, Sandon says. Any changes you make need to be part of a long-term pattern if they’re going to help relieve your symptoms.