Arthritis and nutrition

Good nutrition and a stable diet can be an important part of an overall arthritis treatment plan. However, with more than 100 different kinds of arthritis, it’s impossible to say that one diet fits all. In fact, researchers have found little consistent evidence that certain foods can reduce either the progression of arthritis or its symptoms, and no food causes or cures the condition.

Why your diet matters

Eating a healthy diet has many potential benefits for people with arthritis. First, it can help you to lose weight if you’re overweight. Lower weight often means less stress on your weight-bearing joints – like your hips and knees. Osteoarthritis (OA), caused by wear and tear on the joints, is usually more severe in people who are overweight. Even a relatively small drop in weight can make a difference in how the disease progresses. Some studies have found that middle-aged and older women of average height who lost 11 pounds or more over 10 years cut their risk for severe OA of the knee in half.

Also, studies have shown that a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables can boost energy levels and lower blood pressure. When you feel good, you’re more likely to stay active, which can be a very important strategy in coping with arthritis. Many health care providers recommend exercise to ease arthritis-related pain and to maintain or improve flexibility. A balanced diet, then, goes hand-in-hand with a regular exercise program.

Seven ways to begin

Do you want to eat more healthfully? Your health care provider can offer recommendations specific to your situation, but as a start, nutritionists suggest following these seven general guidelines:

1. Beware of “miracle” diets. Too-good-to-be-true regimens usually have little science behind them. Be wary of any eating plan that promises a “cure” or recommends that you consume a lot of one kind of food and/or completely cut out another. Besides not being effective, these diets may cause or increase side effects from your medications for arthritis or other medical conditions. If you’re tempted to try such a diet, first discuss it with your health care provider.

2. Steer clear of “wonder drugs.” Avoid taking any supplement, pill, or liquid not recommended by your health care provider; they, too, can interfere with other medications and often don’t work. An exception might be certain oils. Some studies have shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) have had a decrease in their symptoms of pain and joint tenderness after consuming fish oil (from coldwater fish such as mackerel, salmon, and herring) and plant oil (from evening primrose and borage, for example). Your health care provider can give you advice about whether these oils are right for you and, if appropriate, advise on the proper dosage.

3. Think “balance” and “variety.” Try to prepare meals with selections from the major food groups: protein (meat, fish, and eggs), whole grains (bread, rice, and cereals), fruits, and vegetables. Eating a variety of foods will ensure that your body receives many nutrients. (And that you won’t get bored!) A nutritionist can help you to assess if you’re eating too much or too little from any particular group and offer ways to balance your diet. You can find government guidelines for the food groups at the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

4. Keep a food diary. Some people find that certain foods seem to trigger their arthritis symptoms; for example, red meat, alcohol, and tomatoes have been associated with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) flare-ups. Others have had an attack of gout after eating rich foods such as chocolate cake. If you suspect that certain foods bring on or increase your symptoms, track what you eat and how you feel afterward. Report any patterns to your health care provider.

5. Help to build strong bones. People with RA may be more likely to develop osteoporosis, a disease in which the bones become thin and break more easily. Some medications used to treat RA can increase the risk. Foods that contain calcium and vitamin D, such as low-fat dairy products and leafy greens, can help to promote healthy bones. Sometimes, though, a supplement is needed. Ask your health care provider if you’re a candidate, and if so, to recommend a proper dosage.

6. Don’t overdo with any one food or beverage. Consuming more than two alcoholic drinks per day can weaken bones, while a diet high in “simple” carbohydrates (sweets, white bread, and pasta) can worsen fatigue. Moderation is especially important if you’re taking medications, some of which can cause you to gain weight more easily. Talk to your health care provider if you need help with cutting back on something in your diet.

7. Take “baby steps.” Depending on your health care provider’s recommendations, you may not need to overhaul your whole diet at once. Small changes can add up. Try filling half your plate with vegetables at mealtime. Buy cut-up vegetables to take when you’re on the go, or eat a piece of fruit and whole-grain bread with a frozen dinner. For more weight-loss tips, recipes, and nutritional information, visit the Arthritis Foundation’s website. Also, be sure to keep your health care team updated on your progress, and to ask for its support and ideas on healthy eating.