Ouch. Feel that? That dull, aching pain in your joints after you’ve been active all day, or that stiffness when you get up in the morning? It’s arthritis, and it’s here to stay now that you’re getting older, right? Well, sort of: there’s no cure for arthritis, unfortunately, but you don’t necessarily have to live with the worst of the pain, stiffness, and soreness. Your doctor can prescribe medications, and you can make changes to your lifestyle that can help alleviate the pain, like moving more and getting more sleep. But did you know that your diet can also affect your arthritis? Yes, dieticians and the Arthritis Foundation recommend incorporating – or avoiding – certain foods to help manage your arthritis and live a more pain-free life.
What Does Your Diet Have to Do with Arthritis?
First of all, let’s make it clear that we’re talking about osteoarthritis, which develops when the cartilage in the joints breaks down over time. This is the most common form of arthritis, affecting around 30 million people in the U.S. – so you are certainly not alone in your suffering!
We know you’re looking for relief, and you might not be so jazzed about the idea of popping ibuprofen like it’s candy, so it’s definitely worth a try to incorporate certain exercises, and certain foods, into your diet. Why does your diet play a part in arthritis pain relief? The right diet can’t cure your osteoarthritis, but it can help you to:
- Reduce inflammation and protect against further damage- Certain foods can help reduce inflammation, a major component of osteoarthritis, or even prevent further damage to your joints (think: foods rich in antioxidants).
- Lower cholesterol – People with arthritis tend to also have high cholesterol, so a diet that helps keep your cholesterol in check might help with symptoms.
- Maintain a healthy weight – Losing weight can help take pressure off of your joints, as well as help with inflammation. If you’re having trouble losing weight because of mobility issues, talk to your doctor.
So let’s take a look at some specific foods you can incorporate into your diet to help you manage your osteoarthritis.
1. Fatty/Oily Fish
Love seafood? You’re in luck! Certain types of fish can actually help reduce inflammation: specifically, fatty fish varieties such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and trout, which are high in omega-3 fatty acids. “Fish is an excellent source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and regular consumption of omega-3 rich fish has been linked to reduced joint swelling in people with arthritis,” says Paula Doebrich, RDN, MPH, and owner of Happea Nutrition.
In fact, in one small study, 33 participants were fed either fatty fish, lean fish, or lean meat four times each week. After eight weeks, the fatty fish group had decreased levels of specific compounds related to inflammation. And, a test-tube study showed that omega-3 fatty acids reduced several inflammatory markers that are involved in osteoarthritis.
So how much fatty fish should you shoot for? You should include at least one serving in your diet each week to take advantage of the beneficial anti-inflammatory properties. Having trouble keeping fresh fish in the house? Try frozen or canned (just look out for added sodium in the canned versions). Not a fan of oily fish? You can also try omega-3 supplements, like fish oil, krill oil, or flaxseed oil, or add more chia seeds, flaxseed oil, and walnuts into your diet.
2. Nuts and Seeds
Speaking of chia seeds and walnuts, most kinds of nuts and seeds are a great source of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. But that’s not the only thing that makes them a great choice for those with arthritis. According to Doebrich, “nuts and seeds are also a good source of selenium and vitamin E, which act as antioxidants in the body.”
And did you know that red meat, while it’s a good source of protein, can cause flare-ups in people with arthritis? So nuts, which are high in protein and low in saturated fat, are a great replacement option!
These tiny trees don’t only make you feel like a giant when you chow down on them, they also are fabulously nutritious: broccoli is rich in vitamins K and C, as well as bone-strengthening calcium. But it also contains a compound called sulforaphane, which researchers believe could slow the progression of osteoarthritis. In fact, one study that looked at the diets of 1,005 women found that the intake of cruciferous vegetables like broccoli was associated with decreased levels of inflammatory markers.
Garlic isn’t just great for warding off vampires: researchers believe that garlic and its components might have cancer-fighting properties, and the ability to help lower the risk of heart disease and dementia.
But that’s not all: garlic has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect that may help decrease symptoms of arthritis. It also has a compound called diallyl disulfide, which scientists believe might work against the enzymes in the body that damage cartilage. Check this out: in one study, researchers analyzed the diets of 1,082 twins, and they found that those who ate more garlic had a reduced risk of hip osteoarthritis, likely thanks to garlic’s strong anti-inflammatory properties.
Not bad! Definitely worth risking being rejected for a big smooch!
Berries are sweet, delicious, and bursting with health benefits! They’re rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, all of which provide a ton of health benefits, including reducing inflammation. Researchers have found plenty of evidence to back this up: for example, in one study of 38,176 women, those who ate at least two servings of strawberries per week were 14% less likely to have an elevated level of inflammatory markers in the blood.
Scientists have also studied two specific compounds found in strawberries, quercetin and rutin, both of which have been found to reduce inflammation or block the inflammatory processes associated with arthritis.
So that means it’s time to get snacking on strawberries, blueberries, or blackberries! Fresh or frozen, it doesn’t matter, just get your daily dose in – you can even make yourself a smoothie with some leafy greens (more on them below) to really punch that arthritis in the face!
Ah, ginger – that unmistakable spice! It packs a lot of punch flavor-wise, but it could also be a powerful fighter against arthritis pain. A 2001 study assessed the effects of ginger extract in 261 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee; after six weeks, 63% of participants experienced improvements in knee pain. So try taking a ginger supplement, adding this spicy root to soups, or drinking some ginger tea.
7. Leafy Greens
Now there’s another reason to eat your greens! Dark, leafy greens like spinach, collard greens, kale, and chard are rich in Vitamin D and stress-fighting phytochemicals and antioxidants. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption, which can help strengthen your bones.
While all of these greens are great for you, you might want to take Popeye’s advice and add more spinach into your diet to specifically help with your arthritis. A 2017 test-tube study treated arthritic cartilage cells with kaempferol, a compound found in spinach, and found it reduced inflammation and prevented the progression of osteoarthritis.
So why not try some salmon with spinach sauteed in olive oil? Why specifically olive oil? Well…
8. Olive Oil
Olive oil is well known for its anti-inflammatory properties: “This is because olive oil is an excellent source of healthy, monounsaturated fats, and EVOO is also rich in antioxidants, which are known to be anti-inflammatory,” says Doebrich. It contains a compound known as oleocanthal, which naturally helps reduce inflammation and can also be great for your heart health.
In fact, in one study, mice were fed extra-virgin olive oil for six weeks (lucky mice!), which actually helped stop the development of arthritis, reduce joint swelling, slow cartilage destruction and decrease inflammation. And in another small study, participants who consumed either fish oil or an olive oil capsule each day for 24 weeks had decreased levels of a specific inflammatory marker (38.5% less in the olive oil group and between 40–55% in the fish oil group).
So remember, when you’re sauteeing your broccoli or leafy greens, make sure you reach for the olive oil instead of the butter (and throw some garlic in there, as well)!
What to Avoid
Finally, we should point out that there are some types of foods that you should avoid as much as possible to keep your arthritis under control. These include:
- Sugary foods and drinks – Processed sugars can prompt the release of cytokines, which act as inflammatory messengers in the body. Sugary beverages seem to be especially problematic for arthritis sufferers, so steer clear of them.
- Foods high in saturated fat – These include things like red meat, butter, and cheese, and can cause inflammation in the fat tissue. Try to swap out red meat as a protein source for nuts, and butter for olive oil.
- Refined carbohydrates – Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white rice, and potato chips, fuel the production of advanced glycation end (AGE) oxidants, which can stimulate inflammation in the body. Swap out refined carbohydrates for their healthier whole grain counterparts.
Living with arthritis can feel like a struggle, but there are things you can do to manage your pain. This includes eating a healthy diet that includes the foods listed above, and avoiding those other foods that are often the culprits when it comes to our less-than-perfect health. So talk to your doctor, try to get moving, and start creating some serious smoothies and delicious dishes with the foods that will help keep those joints feeling good!