Nutrition and Arthritis

Dietary advice is something we can all benefit from following, but it may especially affect the experience of rheumatoid arthritis sufferers. The link between diet and arthritis has yet to be proven scientifically, but there are certain nutritional recommendations that doctors believe are helpful in the management of symptoms and prevention of further deterioration.

Below is a general introduction to dietary concerns for arthritis patients and caregivers.

Specific Dietary Problems of Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers

Many rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients experience general physical wasting and malnutrition. Metabolic rate and protein breakdown may also increase, so meeting basic nutritional requirements becomes difficult. Pain and swelling of joints make grocery shopping and food preparation even more of a challenge.

The minor side effects of medications may have side effects such as gastritis and peptic ulcers, which reduce a patient’s appetite.

One of the most reported dietary observations is the connection of certain foods to the aggravation of symptoms. Some people are allergic to specific foods and others find their symptoms exacerbated by the chemicals produced in the body to metabolize food. Corn, wheat, cheese, beef, coffee, tomatoes and eggs are just a few of the worst offenders.

Calcium is particularly important to arthritis sufferers. Lack of calcium contributes greatly to the disease called osteoporosis, (brittle bones). Good sources of calcium include cow’s milk, enriched soy milk, cheese, baked beans and sardines.

Dietary Recommendations

Basic Balance

A healthy, balanced diet is a good start. Choose a wide variety of foods and include plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Avoid sugars, saturated fat and foods high in cholesterol. Consult with your doctor to assess whether you are getting all the important basic nutrients, including minerals such as calcium and iron.

Watching your weight is also crucial to arthritis sufferers. Weight-bearing joints such as those in the back, hips, knees, ankles and feet, suffer greater damage when staining under excess weight. Even a small weight loss can make a big difference to your joints.

Diet Elimination Therapy

Elimination diets remove specific foods, or groups of foods, to determine patients’ food sensitivities. Each food is avoided for a specific amount of time. They are then gradually reintroduced to see if the food provokes a reaction. Preliminary studies show good temporary improvements in symptoms, although further research is on long-term benefits still needs to be done.

Dietary Fatty Acids

Foods containing Omega-3 dietary fatty acids may be very beneficial for inflammatory conditions. The body uses fatty acids to produce chemicals important to the control of inflammation, called prostaglandins and leukotrienes. Certain seafoods are rich in these fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, anchovies and mackerel. These fish not only reduce inflammation levels and thin the blood, but may also have a preventative role. Experts recommend three or more servings a week. Some people may prefer taking fish oil supplements, but be aware that they can have side effects ranging from an upset stomach to interference with blood clotting. Increasing fatty acids through the diet is the preferred method.

Avoid Saturated Fats

Fat in itself is not harmful. The body does need some fat to function, but of course too much of the wrong kind is harmful. Rheumatoid Arthritis sufferers should avoid foods high in saturated fats, such as red meats and some dairy products, as they maybe responsible for increasing inflammation. Reducing fat does not mean missing out on all of your favorite foods. Try to gradually switch to low-fat products such as low-fat milk and spread. Always choose leaner cuts of meat and try to substitute junk food with fruit and nuts.


Sugar only contains ‘empty calories’ – it has no intrinsic nutritional value. Eating one ounce less sugar per day saves over one hundred calories.

While there is still a lot of research to be done on the link between diet and arthritis, the anecdotal evidence suggests simple and gradual dietary changes assist in the management of this disease.

Sources: John Hopkins Arthritis Center

Arthritis Research Campaign

Loes M., Shields M., Wilkholm G. and Steinman D., Arthritis: the Doctors’ Cure, Keats Publishing Inc., 1998

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