Rheumatoid Arthritis Diet Plan
If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), you might wonder how your diet affects your condition and if there's anything you can eat to help your symptoms. There's no specific diet that treats RA, but some foods can help lower inflammation (irritation, pain, swelling) in your body. They can also help you manage your weight, which is important to avoid excess pressure on your joints. And because they're good for you, these foods can help you feel better overall.
The Mediterranean diet is based on foods that people in that region of the world eat regularly, such as:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Olive oil
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans and peas
Research shows that the Mediterranean diet can lower inflammation and improve symptoms of RA. In one study, women with RA who ate a Mediterranean-type diet for 6 weeks had less joint pain and morning stiffness as well as better overall health than a control group that didn't follow the diet.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
One of the reasons the Mediterranean diet is good for RA is its high content of omega-3 fatty acids. These are a healthy type of fat found in fish, nuts, and seeds that research shows can help lower inflammation and reduce RA pain, swelling, and stiffness.
These healthy fats also boost your heart health by lowering triglycerides -- a type of fat that can increase your risk of heart problems when you eat too much of it. They also help reduce the buildup of plaque in your arteries. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and calcium. Too much of it can block blood flow and cause heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. As RA increases your risk of heart disease, you want to take every opportunity to keep your heart healthy.
Best Foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Beans are packed with fiber, which can help lower your levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation. Beans also give you protein to keep the muscles around your joints strong. Red, kidney, and pinto beans are also good sources of nutrients such as folate, magnesium, iron, and potassium, all of which can give your heart and immune system a boost.
Broccoli and other green leafy veggies, such as spinach, Brussels sprouts, kale, and Swiss chard, are full of vitamins A and C, which protect you from free radical damage. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage your body's cells and cause and worsen RA. Broccoli is also a great source of calcium, which keeps your bones strong.
Chemicals called anthocyanins are powerful antioxidants that can fight free radicals and help lower inflammation. They also give cherries their bright color. You can also find them in other purple and red fruits, such as raspberries and blueberries.
Salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, tuna, and anchovies provide omega-3s that can reduce inflammation and protect your heart health.
Don't like fish? Walnuts, canola oil, and soybeans are good sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids.
This tasty drink offers polyphenols, which are antioxidants that may lower inflammation and slow cartilage destruction.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Olive oil contains polyphenols of about 30 different kinds. Choose extra-virgin olive oil. It comes from the first pressing of the olive and has the most good-for-you nutrients.
Eating more whole grains instead of processed ones (think brown rice instead of white) can help lower CRP levels. Whole grains are also higher in fiber, which fills you up and makes it easier to manage your appetite. That can help you stay at a healthy weight so you don’t have extra pressure on your joints.
Red peppers are brimming with vitamin C. Vitamin C helps your body make collagen, which is part of your cartilage, tendons, and ligaments that cushion your joints and hold them together.
Salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Canned salmon is convenient, but it also has an added benefit — varieties canned with bones have calcium and vitamin D, which help strengthen your bones. The tiny fish bones are soft and easy to eat.
Rheumatoid Arthritis Supplements
Getting enough essential vitamins and minerals is important for your health. When you have RA, certain vitamins and minerals are even more important, such as:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin K
If you can't get enough of these from your diet, your doctor might recommend taking a supplement.
Some research shows that other nonessential nutritional supplements may benefit RA:
Boron. A trace element naturally found in foods, boron has been shown to fight inflammation. Research shows that people who have high-boron diets have a very low incidence of arthritis, and there's evidence that people with RA can benefit. The best sources of boron are fresh fruits and vegetables and, depending on where you live, drinking water.
Fish oil. Just like eating fatty fish, taking a fish oil supplement can help you get omega-3 fatty acids that lower inflammation. If you're not able to get enough fish oil from your diet, your doctor may suggest a fish oil supplement.
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). Your body uses this omega-6 fatty acid to make anti-inflammatory agents. This is different from other omega-6 fatty acids that can actually increase inflammation. GLA is found in evening primrose oil, black currant oil, and borage oil supplements. Some research shows that taking GLA can help improve symptoms of RA.
S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe). Several studies show SAMe, a substance that occurs naturally in your body's tissues, is as effective as anti-inflammatory painkillers for relieving pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints -- but with fewer side effects.
Turmeric. Turmeric is a root related to ginger. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Several studies have found that it can help reduce pain and swelling in RA.
There are many other supplements people might use to help with RA. But there's not enough research to confirm these benefits. Medical care, medication, a healthy diet, and exercise are the best evidence-backed treatments for RA. Never use nutritional supplements as a substitute for professional medical care, and always ask your doctor before taking a new supplement to make sure it's right for you.
Foods to Avoid With RA
Just as there are foods that can help your RA symptoms, there are also foods that can make them worse. Some of these foods can increase inflammation in your body, and many are high in fat, sugar, and salt, which can make it harder to manage your weight and keep your heart healthy.
High in salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, processed foods can cause inflammation, weight gain, and heart problems. Not only are they bad for RA, but they're also bad for your overall health.
Red meat and processed meats
These contain high levels of saturated fat, which can increase inflammation and have negative effects on heart health. Processed meats, such as deli meat, sometimes also contain preservatives that can cause inflammation.
These are high in omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fats that cause inflammation and worsen heart health.
Refined sugars and carbohydrates
Sugary foods, such as pastries, candies, and sweetened beverages, can make your body release inflammatory messengers called cytokines. The same is true for refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and white pasta, which your body quickly digests into simple sugars.
Alcohol doesn’t mix well with your RA medicines and can also cause inflammation.
Arthritis Diet Claims
There are a lot of claims made about how certain foods and diets can affect RA. Some common ones are:
Eliminate nightshades. One of the most common diet claims is that eliminating nightshades, which include potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and most peppers, relieves arthritis. This diet probably isn't harmful, but there's little evidence to support it.
Alkaline diet. There are claims that arthritis is caused by too much acid. The alkaline diet cuts out processed foods and meat. People on an alkaline diet may feel better because they lose weight, which reduces stress on joints and eases pain. Even though there's little evidence to support the claim that acidic foods cause arthritis, cutting out these foods can help reduce inflammation and improve your heart health.
Gelatin. You might hear people suggest eating Jell-O or other forms of liquid gelatin to help ease joint pain. There's no proof for this. But some research shows that some types of collagen, such as hydrolysate or undenatured collagen, may be helpful. More research is needed to confirm this.
Avoid dairy. Some people find that dairy makes their symptoms worse. Other people have no problems with it. Unless you are lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy products, there's no reason to avoid all dairy. But it is a good idea to choose low-fat or nonfat dairy.
Gin-soaked raisins. Lots of people claim it works, but experts say there's no evidence. Grapes and raisins do contain anti-inflammatory compounds, but not in amounts that would be therapeutic. The gin might dull pain, but excessive drinking sabotages the health benefits of nutrients and vitamins and causes a whole new set of problems.