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Try these 7 foods that help arthritis—and learn what to avoid
Health Education

Try these 7 foods that help arthritis—and learn what to avoid

Arthritis is more than inflammation of the joints—it’s the leading cause of disability in the U.S., affecting more than 54 million Americans and affecting daily activities of 24 million. Part of managing the symptoms of arthritis is eating a nutritious diet full of foods that help you maintain a healthy weight.

There are more than 100 types of arthritis, but there are a few forms that occur most commonly: osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. Osteoarthritis causes the cartilage between bones to break down, whereas rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. “People with gout experience uric acid buildup in their blood that can lead to the deposit of urate crystals within joints,” says Jessica Hinkley, clinical registered dietitian at UCHealth.

Although the symptoms associated with the various types of arthritis—joint pain, swelling, and stiffness—can range from inconvenient to debilitating, research shows that following a balanced, anti-inflammatory diet can help alleviate day-to-day joint pain associated with arthritis.

What is the arthritis diet?

For people with arthritis, following an anti-inflammatory diet may help with managing symptoms such as pain and swelling. Many of these foods are found in the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruit, vegetables, beans, fish, and healthy fats such as olive oil, notes Deborah McInerney, clinical nutritionist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. 

Those with rheumatoid arthritis have an increased risk of heart disease because they experience systemic, or body-wide, inflammation. Therefore, a heart-healthy diet can help manage arthritis symptoms and lower the risk of developing other chronic illnesses such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, says Hinkley.

“People with obesity are at increased risk of developing osteoarthritis because carrying extra weight puts more strain on the joints, especially those in the lower body,” Hinkley adds. Due to that elevated risk, those with osteoarthritis often benefit from following a heart-healthy diet due to its ability to help with weight loss. 

The 7 best foods for arthritis

“I am frequently asked what foods someone should eat to help a particular condition, and it usually comes back to the basics: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean protein sources,” says McInerney. She also notes that the best diet depends on the type of arthritis, weight status, and any medications that the patient takes that may affect certain foods.

Hinkley agrees: “Overall, eating a heart-healthy or Mediterranean type of diet will have the biggest impact on arthritis symptoms, but learning how to incorporate more possibly anti-inflammatory foods and spices in your diet may help you discover new nutritious meals that you enjoy.” In fact, this type of diet is often recommended by a registered dietitian for those who want to improve their overall health and wellness.

1. Berries

Fruits such as blueberries and blackberries are known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, making them great options to help with arthritis pain as well as satisfy a sweet tooth and avoid added sugar intake.

2. Green vegetables

Kale, spinach, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli are known for their high levels of vitamin C, a nutrient that can decrease inflammation as well as help prevent cartilage damage associated with inflammatory arthritis.

3. Whole grains

Brown rice, oatmeal, and quinoa are sources of whole grains that are known for their ability to lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein produced by the liver when the body experiences high levels of inflammation.

4. Fatty fish

Fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and herring are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help prevent the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. If you struggle to get fatty fish into your diet, you may want to talk to your doctor about taking fish oil supplements in order to reap these health benefits.

5. Fatty acids from plants

Flaxseed oil, walnuts, and extra virgin olive oil are great plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. “When it comes to oils, try to choose cold-pressed oils that have been minimally processed to preserve their flavor and health-boosting properties,” Hinkley says.

6. Herbs and minerals

Garlic, ginger, magnesium (bananas are a great source), and turmeric are all known for their anti-inflammatory properties. “Turmeric is a spice that may have anti-inflammatory effects per recent research, although the amounts one may need to eat to have the desired effect may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve for the average person,” Hinkley says. To fully reap the benefits of turmeric, talk to your healthcare provider about a curcumin supplement.

7. Vitamin D

Hinkley adds that those with autoimmune-related arthritis may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D deficiencies are common in those with autoimmune disorders, and few foods contain vitamin D naturally. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should take as there are a wide range of doses available in OTC and prescription strengths.

Worst foods for arthritis

“Many of the same foods that you commonly hear are harmful to your overall health may also make arthritis symptoms worse,” says Hinkley. Focusing on the foods you can and should eat, rather than focusing on all the foods you shouldn’t have, can often seem less daunting, adds McInerney.

1. Added sugars

Many people with arthritis are at higher risk for other chronic illnesses, says Hinkley. Limiting added and simple carbohydrates in your diet (think candy, cookies, sugar-sweetened drinks) lowers your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and decreases potential inflammation.

2. Processed foods

Processing food strips away many of the valuable nutrients, says McInerney. Foods like microwave meals and potato chips are also likely to be higher in added sugars and chemicals that can trigger inflammation.

3. Saturated and hydrogenated fats

The trans fats and saturated fats found in processed foods, fried foods, and red meat may be triggers of arthritis symptoms for some people, causing inflammation and pain to flare up.

4. Omega-6 fatty acids

Although the body does need a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, eating too many foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids, such as safflower oil, canola oil, eggs, and tofu, can increase inflammation and joint pain in the body.

5. High-fat dairy products

While low-fat dairy products are associated with high levels of calcium and with bone health, the proteins in their high-fat counterparts can increase inflammation and cholesterol.

6. Alcohol

Those with rheumatoid arthritis can likely enjoy a drink once in a while without suffering repercussions. However, heavier consumption taxes the liver, which leads to inflammation and increased joint pain throughout the body.

7. Purines

Those who have gout may benefit from limiting foods that are moderate-to-high in purines, such as alcohol, turkey, mussels, scallops, bacon, organ meats, and wild game, adds Hinkley. 

Food interactions with arthritis medication

“Always refer to your doctor or pharmacist regarding possible food-drug interactions for specific medications,” says Hinkley. However, there are some general dietary considerations for those who take certain arthritis medications, including monitoring food safety and limiting certain beverages.

Food safety: Some people with arthritis take immunosuppressive drugs that lower the body’s immune response, increasing the risk for infections and illness, including foodborne illnesses, notes Hinkley. Common food safety measures are even more important in these cases. For example, always wash your hands before you cook or eat, rinse off produce, cook raw meats to the correct internal temperature, reheat leftovers thoroughly, keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold, and refrigerate leftover foods right away.

Salty and fried foods: Steroids, such as prednisone or methylprednisolone, are sometimes used to help control inflammation related to some types of arthritis. Side effects of these medications include fluid retention and body composition changes. To help mitigate these side effects, avoid salty and fried foods. 

Herbal supplements: Because herbal supplements are not strictly regulated by the FDA, they may contain harmful substances or very little of the ingredients advertised, advises Hinkley. Herbal supplements can also interfere with the effectiveness of a number of medications, including immunosuppressive medications. For these reasons, it’s best to speak to your doctor or dietitian before beginning an herbal supplement regimen.

Cola: “Cola beverages contain high amounts of inorganic acids, which are secreted into urine and could impact how the body processes and eliminates methotrexate,” says Inara Nejim, Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. Check with your doctor or pharmacist to see how much cola is advisable to drink with your levels of this medication.

Caffeine: “Researchers from Shaare-Zedek Medical Center in Israel suggest that caffeine consumed in daily amounts greater than 180 mg may interfere with the efficacy of methotrexate in patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr. Nejim says. For reference, a standard 16-ounce cup of coffee contains about 182 mg of caffeine, or double the recommended amount. Therefore, limiting daily coffee consumption may be necessary for those taking methotrexate for rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.

Grapefruit juice: “[Grapefruit and] grapefruit juice is one of the most common foods involved in drug-food interactions,” Dr. Nejim says. Grapefruit juice blocks the actions of an enzyme called cytochrome P-450 3A4, which reduces its ability to process certain medications. When this happens, these affected medications are more likely to hang around the body in higher concentrations, causing increased side effects.

“Effects of grapefruit juice are long-lasting and simply spacing your medications to be taken later in the same day, a few hours after the grapefruit juice you drink at breakfast, is not sufficient to mitigate this interaction,” Dr. Nejim adds. For this reason, when applicable, drug manufacturers often provide information regarding these grapefruit juice interactions within the medication package insert.

Alcohol: “In patients with osteoarthritis taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as Celebrex, regular alcohol consumption should be limited, as it may enhance adverse effects of these interactions,” says Nejim.

See below for a chart indicating common arthritis medications and the food interactions patients should be aware of:


Food-drug interactions with common arthritis meds
Drug name Type of arthritis treated Food interactions Learn more Get coupon
Naprosyn (naproxen) Osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis Alcohol, caffeine Learn more Get coupon
Mobic

(meloxicam)

Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and pauciarticular or polyarticular course juvenile rheumatoid arthritis Grapefruit juice, caffeine, alcohol Learn more Get coupon
Celebrex (celecoxib) Rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis Alcohol Learn more Get coupon
Xeljanz (tofacitinib) Rheumatoid arthritis or active psoriatic arthritis Grapefruit juice Learn more Get coupon
Rheumatrex, Trexall (methotrexate) Certain forms of rheumatoid arthritis Cola, caffeine, alcohol Learn more Get coupon
Deltasone (prednisone) Rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis, acute gouty arthritis Fried foods, processed foods, salty foods, alcohol, caffeine  Learn more Get coupon
Medrol (Methylprednisolone)

 

Rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, osteoarthritis, acute gouty arthritis Fried foods, processed foods, salty foods, Grapefruit juice, alcohol, caffeine Learn more Get coupon

Cultivating a trustworthy relationship with your regular pharmacist can help in these situations, notes Dr. Nejim. When in doubt regarding potential interactions with foods for arthritis, contact your healthcare provider and check whether there are any potential interactions rather than going it alone.