Foods That Help Your Heart -- and Your RA

Medically Reviewed by David Zelman, MD on February 12, 2024
3 min read

The right meal plan can be a two-for-one deal: It will help your painful, stiff joints and prevent heart disease, too.

There's a good reason to go for this bargain. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you've got a bigger chance of having problems with your heart. So make smart choices when you go to the supermarket or dine out.

When you have RA, the inflammation that makes your joints sore, hot, and swollen can lead to clogged arteries, heart attacks, and strokes. Eat the right foods -- and avoid some bad ones -- and your heart and joints will be grateful.

To fight inflammation, put foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids on your shopping list. They can ease joint pain and lessen morning stiffness. Some good sources are fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, tuna, sardines, and herring. Add two 3-ounce servings to your menu each week. Some fish oil supplements contain omega-3s, too.

Fiber can also help. Studies suggest it reduces C-reactive protein (CRP), a sign of inflammation found in the blood. A high CRP level can signal rheumatoid arthritis or heart disease. Stock up on fruits, vegetables, and other high-fiber foods.

Some foods may cause inflammation, so you'll want to stay clear. Sugar is a leading culprit, along with saturated fats, trans fats, refined carbs, and alcohol.

Try to lose extra pounds if you need to, or keep up the good work if you're at the right weight now. If you're not overweight, you'll be less likely to get heart disease, and you'll keep extra pressure off your joints. If you're heavier than you should be, losing weight may help lower inflammation, because fat cells make chemicals that cause it.

If you want to keep a healthy weight, figure out how many calories you need each day, and don't eat more than you can burn off. If you want to shed pounds, eat fewer than you burn.

Make it a habit to check calorie amounts in the foods you eat. You can get the info from packaged food labels, cookbooks, websites, and cellphone apps. Use it to help you make a meal plan. It can also help to keep a food diary for a while.

Stay away from fatty snacks, and fill up on whole-grain foods, fruits, and vegetables that have lots of fiber. Because they're high in nutrients and low in calories, these foods will help you feel full. They’re good for you and can help you maintain your weight.

Before menopause, women appear to get a boost in HDL "good" cholesterol thanks to the hormone estrogen. It also appears to help control levels of LDL "bad" cholesterol. After menopause, when this benefit goes away, it's even more crucial to eat healthy foods to keep your cholesterol levels in check.

The main culprits in your diet are foods high in saturated fat, such as some meats, butter, cheese, whole milk, and processed foods.

On the other hand, foods that are high in unsaturated fats are good for your heart. Some examples are:

  • Plant-based oils such as canola, olive, peanut, safflower, and sesame
  • Nuts and seeds such as flaxseed, sunflower, and walnuts

The American Heart Association suggests you shoot for these numbers:

Total fat: 25%-35% of your daily calories. If you're eating 1,200 calories, that's between 33 and 47 grams of fat.

Saturated fat: Less than 7% of daily calories, or 9 grams of saturated fat.

Trans fats: Avoid all trans fats.

Cholesterol: Less than 300 milligrams per day. If you already have high LDL or you take cholesterol medicine, you should get less than 200 milligrams of cholesterol per day.

Fiber: 25 to 30 grams per day, preferably from whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes.

Cut back on salt to keep it under control. Aim for less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day.

If you drink, be moderate. For women, that means no more than one drink a day. For men, no more than two.

Go for nutritious foods that are full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber but are lower in calories. Some top choices are fruits and veggies, whole-grain products, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products.

Read labels carefully. The Nutrition Facts panel will tell you what's in each food or drink.

If you take the time to think about your food choices, you’ll find that what you eat can have big benefits for both your arthritis and your heart.