You Are What You Eat: New Theories About Rheumatoid Arthritis

From the WebMD Archives

April 18, 2000 -- Rheumatoid arthritis sufferers take note or take it with a grain of salt but eating cereal grains such as wheat, rye, barley, oats and corn, or legumes, such as beans and peas, may produce changes in gut structure that promote the development of the disease in susceptible people. That's according to a paper published in the current issue of the British Journal of Nutrition.

"Our theory helps us begin to understand the connection between joint inflammation and gut inflammation that's been a universal clinical finding for years," lead author Loren Cordain, PhD, tells WebMD. He and his colleagues have developed a theory about "how diet can interact with gut tissue as well as components of the immune system to promote the development of [rheumatoid arthritis] in certain individuals," he says. Cordain is a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

People who may be susceptible to developing rheumatoid arthritis would be those with genes that predisposes them to the disease. "We're not saying that everyone with this genetic make-up would develop the disease, but if the circumstances were right, they would," says Cordain.

The right circumstances could include consuming foods such as cereal grains and beans, which are high in a substance called lectins. Lectins can cause changes in the wall of the digestive track, which allows some of the material normally kept inside the gut to leak into the body. The material can then prompt the immune system into attacking the body's own joints, resulting in rheumatoid arthritis.

Cordain says, "What we need now are good [studies] where we test whether a diet that doesn't contain lectins and perhaps some other foods will reduce or [improve] the symptoms of [rheumatoid arthritis]. Some anecdotal reports indicate that it will."

Carol Henderson, PhD, RD, LD, tells WebMD, "There's no doubt there's a role for large [studies] looking at the role of diet in the development and management of [rheumatoid arthritis], and the NIH seems to be moving in that direction." However, she's unsure about what actually causes the disease. "We aren't even close to establishing a clear link between genetics and rheumatic diseases," she says. Henderson is assistant professor in the department of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta and was not involved in the study.

Jaya Venkatraman, PhD, was also not involved in the study but tells WebMD, "As far as a causal role for diet in [rheumatoid arthritis], I'm not familiar with any research establishing that link." However, she adds, "We do know that some people with [rheumatoid arthritis] who go on vegetarian diets or substitute fish" in their diets report feeling better. She too says that more research is needed. Venkatraman is professor in the department of physical therapy, exercise, and nutrition sciences at SUNY at Buffalo.

Vital Information:

  • Researchers have known about a connection between joint inflammation and gut inflammation, and now suspect that diet may play an important role in these processes.
  • A new theory suggests that eating cereal grains can encourage the development of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease in which the immune system attacks the body's own joints.
  • Researchers say cereal grains contain a substance known as lectins, which can emerge from the digestive track and into the body, prompting an immune response, which eventually leads to an immune system attack on the joints.