Can a plant-based diet help you manage your rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms? Researchers have studied this question for years. The answer: Possibly. But there are some important things to think about.
Some studies suggest that plant-based diets -- specifically vegan diets -- can help control RA symptoms. The basic theory is that when you go vegan, you stop eating animal products, and your RA symptoms get better.
The facts are more complex than “plants good, animals bad,” though. Vegan diets tend to include more healthy foods in general. Non-vegans tend to eat more saturated fats (think burgers, cheese, and butter), which can trigger inflammation.
Before you switch to a vegan or other plant-based diet to help ease RA pain, know this: You can be vegan and still eat plenty of foods that are bad if you have RA. For example, sugar and french fries, which both come from plants, can trigger inflammation.
Plant-Based, Vegan, Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?
A plant-based diet isn’t the same as a vegan or vegetarian diet. All three help you eat lots of healthy, whole foods, but more and more studies suggest a vegan diet can relieve RA pain.
- Plant-based diet. This is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and other plant-based foods. Some people will also eat meat, poultry, fish, or dairy along with plant-based foods.
- Vegan diet. A vegan diet is entirely plant-based. You don’t eat foods that come from animals -- no meat, poultry, dairy, fish, or eggs.
- Vegetarian diet. Vegetarians don’t eat any animals -- meat, poultry, or fish. But they can eat dairy products, like milk and cheese, as well as eggs.
Why Going Plant-Based May Help Ease RA
There are a few science-backed theories about why plant-based diets can help with RA symptoms.
Inflammation-fighting foods. A healthy, plant-based diet will give you plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Nutrients in these foods may help ease inflammation and fight RA pain. One small study found that 4 weeks on a low-fat vegan diet improved RA joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Better gut health. New research suggests that a healthy gut may keep inflammation in check. Your gut should naturally have many different types of “good” bacteria, but many people with RA don’t have this. Fiber, found in plant foods, can help change that. Great sources of fiber include:
- Green peas
- Whole-wheat spaghetti
- Black beans
Weight loss. A healthy, plant-based diet can lead to weight loss, even if you don’t track calories or hit the gym. You could get even better results if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. A few reasons weight loss can help you manage your RA:
- Excess fat releases chemicals that cause inflammation.
- Extra pounds put added pressure on your joints, which boosts inflammation.
- Being overweight makes it harder to get your RA into remission.
How to Start a Plant-Based Diet
Whether you want to try a vegan or vegetarian diet, or simply make plants the focus of your meals, you’ll be doing your joints a favor. Research also suggests that cutting back on animal protein may protect you from some inflammatory types of arthritis. These tips can help you get the nutrition you need from a plant-based diet, without going hungry.
Fill up on protein. Protein helps you feel full and keeps your skin, bones, muscles, and organs healthy. To get enough of this nutrient on a plant-based diet, eat different sources throughout the day. You can try:
- Soy products, including tofu
- Meat substitutes
Fall in love with veggies. You don’t need to fill your plate with boring, steamed veggies at every meal. Find veggie-centered recipes with flavors that make you look forward to eating. Think sweet butternut squash, spicy gazpacho, or creamy guacamole.
Rethink meat dishes. Don’t want to give up meat? You can still eat a plant-based diet and enjoy animal protein. Use it as a minor ingredient instead of the main one.
Discover new whole grains. Don’t rely on brown rice or oatmeal as your only sources of whole grains. Try others to keep meals interesting, like quinoa, buckwheat, and barley -- sweet or savory, for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.