Arthritis remains without a cure, but recent studies have shown that symptoms can be managed, at least somewhat, through the foods that we eat. Some foods, like really fatty foods, and foods high in salt and simple sugars, increase inflammation levels. Other foods have been shown to fight inflammation, strengthen bones, and help support the immune system, thus alleviating some of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. So, by making some minor changes to what you eat, you can start feeling better and live with less pain.
Arthritis is a surprisingly broad term used to describe a class of diseases that cause pain, swelling, and joint stiffness. Osteoarthritis is one type that typically develops in joints with overuse. Rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the joints. Regardless of what type you suffer from, the main culprit is inflammation. What scientists know for sure is that there are important links between your stomach and inflammation, and that our diet — which leans towards high-fat and low-nutrients — creates conditions ripe for arthritis. In one study, 24% of patients with RA reported that their diet noticeably impacted the severity of their symptoms and subsequently found relief by adhering to a proscribed diet.
There are several theories behind why this works. Dr. Loren Cordain, who created the Autoimmune Protocol Diet (or AIP), argues that some autoimmune conditions like RA are caused by a “leaky gut,” or altered intestinal permeability. In a leaky gut, food leaks through tiny holes in the mucosa (or lining), provoking a response (an overreaction, really) from the immune system. If you avoid irritating the gut with foods that can leak through the mucosa, you can heal the mucosa and avoid the inflammation associated with the autoimmune response.
Eating the right foods can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which might reduce your levels of inflammation as well. Obesity is a risk factor for inflammatory conditions; body fat generates substances that in turn generate inflammation. So, the more fat there is, the more inflamed the body will be. And, the foods that typically lead to obesity — those high in fat, sugar, salt, and processed ingredients — are known to increase inflammation as well.
Although changing your diet won’t necessarily allow you to forgo arthritis management treatments, it can help reduce the amount of medication necessary, and thus reduce unwelcome side effects as well.
The AIP Diet
The AIP Diet is similar to the popular Paleo Diet, in that many foods we commonly eat are verboten. Under the AIP diet, you are allowed to eat:
- Meat (preferably grass-fed) and fish
- Vegetables (excluding those in the nightshade family)
- Sweet Potatoes
- Small quantities of fruit
- Coconut milk
- Avocado, Olive, and coconut oil
- Fresh non seed herbs (such as basil, mint, or oregano)
- Herbal tea
- Bone broth
So, in other words, you need to avoid all grains (including oats, wheat, and rice), all dairy, eggs, nuts and seeds, legumes and beans, nightshade vegetables, sugars (including alternative sweeteners), butter, chocolate, and alcohol. This is extreme, to say the least, and would be difficult to adhere to for any length of time. (Some people might prefer the arthritis pain, to be honest.)
The Mediterranean Diet
The good news is that people have also found a significant amount of relief from their arthritis symptoms by adhering to something like the Mediterranean Diet. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats by eating mostly veggies, fruits, and whole grains. You can use plenty of extra virgin olive oil as a source of healthy fat, and eat moderate amounts of fish, cheese, and yogurt.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat
Some people find that sticking to a specific diet can be difficult, for many reasons. If that’s an issue for you, consider trying to eat more of the foods that are known to reduce the symptoms of arthritis. (Many of these foods are found in the Mediterranean Diet as well, conveniently.)
- Fish — certain types of fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, sardines, trout, mackerel, and herring, are high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation.
- Foods made with soybeans (like tofu) and edamame are low in fat, high in protein and fiber, and also contain a ton of Omega-3 fatty acids.
- Olive, avocado, and safflower oils – EVOO (Extra virgin olive oil) is loaded with healthy fat and oleocanthal, which has properties similar to nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Berries — cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries all contain anthocyanins, which have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Low-fat dairy products — calcium and Vitamin D help increase bone strength and support the immune system
- Leafy green vegetables — particularly spinach, kale, broccoli, and collard greens, which are rich in Vitamin D, E, and C.
- Broccoli — loaded with calcium, vitamins K and C, and contains sulforaphane, which may help prevent or slow the progression of osteoarthritis
- Green Tea — packed with polyphenols, which are antioxidants believed to reduce inflammation and slow cartilage deterioration. It also has epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which blocks the production of molecules that cause joint damage in people with RA
- Citrus fruits — oranges, grapefruits, and limes are rich in vitamin C, which helps the body produce collagen, a major component of cartilage
- Grapes -— could lower CRP, and have several compounds shown to be beneficial in the treatment of arthritis, like resveratrol.
- Whole grains — oatmeal, brown rice, and whole-grain cereals can lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood. CRP is a marker of inflammation associated with heart disease, diabetes, and RA.
- Beans — fiber also helps lower CRP, and some beans like red beans, kidney beans, and pinto beans are rich in folic acid, magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium, which are known for their heart and immune system benefits.
- Garlic — studies have shown that foods in the allium family (garlic, onions and leaks) contain diallyl disulphide, which may limit the cartilage-damaging enzymes in human cells.
- Nuts — rich in protein, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and immune-boosting alpha linolenic acid (ALA), as well as filling protein and fiber.
Foods to Avoid
Ideally, if you’re looking to reduce the impact arthritis has on your daily life, you should try to avoid foods high in fat, salt, sugar, and processed ingredients. That includes red meat, high-fat dairy, fried foods, canned foods, alcohol, and refined carbohydrates.
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