Can changing what you eat ease symptoms of arthritis? Our nutritionist shares some top anti-inflammatory foods for those considering a diet for arthritis
Whether it’s rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis you suffer from, inflammation lurking around your joints is contributing to your pain. A diet for arthritis unfortunately can’t offer a cure. However, there’s an emerging bank of research to suggest that some of the symptoms of arthritis may be relieved by making changes to what you eat.
“It’s difficult to say anything conclusive about diet and arthritis – while some research shows a significant reduction in symptoms of arthritis from adopting a dietary change, others suggest the impact is less noticeable,” says Holland & Barrett nutritionist, Emily Rollason. “But it’s certainly true that there’s a growing number of studies that provide an interesting look into adopting certain diets for arthritis.”
For example, removing high purine foods for gout is one option. Looking at eating a largely wholefood diet, high in plant-based foods, wholegrains and including spices such as ginger and turmeric is another. It’s also widely suggested that one to two portions of oily fish per week can help decrease severity of arthritis symptoms.
There’s even speculation that a certain group of fruit and vegetables known as night shades (including aubergines, tomatoes, and peppers) are best avoided by arthritis sufferers. This is due to them containing a compound called solanine, which is thought to have pro-inflammatory properties. But there’s little evidence currently to show this is the case.
“Studies definitely show a mixed bag of evidence when it comes to the impact of nutrition on joint pain,” Emily adds. “It’s difficult to assess whether or not dietary changes really can provide a benefit for arthritis from this varied information.”
It’s certainly a complex subject. And for this reason, to understand how diet is connected to the pain in your joints, it’s important first to stand back and understand what arthritis is.
What is arthritis?
Arthritis is a broad term covering a range of conditions that cause stiffness, pain and swelling around your joints. There are many types of arthritis and it can show up in various areas of your body – hands, knees, hips, even your toes. Arthritis can make simple daily activities, such as climbing stairs, cooking and walking to the shops, more challenging.
Arthritis affects people of all ages, including children and teenagers, but it’s particularly common in older people. In fact, it’s thought that around 10 million people in the UK1 live with joint pain due to arthritis.
What causes arthritis?
The causes of arthritis vary depending on the type of arthritis you suffer from, but there are some factors that increase your risk.
- As normal wear and tear of joints increases with age, so does your risk of arthritis
- Family history. You may be more likely to suffer with arthritis if your close family members have the condition
- Whilst men are more likely to get gout (a type of arthritis), women are more susceptible to rheumatoid arthritis
- Joint injuries. A previous joint injury can increase your likelihood of developing arthritis in that area in the future
- Being overweight. Obesity puts extra stress on joints, particularly your knees, hips and spine. People with obesity have a higher risk of developing arthritis
How do joints work?
Joints are located around your body in places where two or more bones meet. For example, knees, hips, fingers, toes, shoulders. Joints allow the body to move and bend in a smooth and correct manner.
Inflammation around the joint is behind many types of chronic joint pain. So, before we get into the detail of how diet can affect your arthritis, let’s talk the basics of how joints work.
It takes a lot more than bones to create movement. First, there are muscles and tendons. Tendons connect your bones to muscle. But, how do they know when to move? That’s the job of your muscles. Not only do they provide crucial support for the joint, they also receive the messages from your brain triggering tendons to pull on the bone to create movement.
But the movement itself, how does that happen? That’s where ligaments step into the spotlight. These stretchy bands of fibrous connective tissue ensure bones are held in position and enable the joint to move in the correct manner for that part of the body.
So, we’ve covered what spurs movements and what holds the bones in the right position. But what about making sure the bones don’t grind against each other? This is where human biology gets clever. Around each joint is a capsule containing synovial fluid. This provides lubrication. And finally, the cartilage covering the ends of your bones acts as a shock absorber. Together, they enable the bones to glide over each other smoothly.
With every movement of your joint involving such complex biology, inflammation can easily send things off balance. This is what triggers pain and other symptoms of arthritis.
Can a diet for arthritis help control symptoms?
There are many different types of arthritis, and diet won’t impact on all of these in the same way or to the same extent. For example, while there are some emerging links between nutrition, osteoarthritis and gout, UK NICE guidelines advises there’s no strong evidence that rheumatoid arthritis will benefit from changes in diet2. However, given that obesity can increase your risk of getting arthritic joints, eating a balanced diet that supports a healthy body weight has obvious benefits when it comes to arthritis.
Your weight can affect arthritis in two ways3. Firstly, extra weight puts additional pressure on your joints. Secondly, excess body fat can also increase inflammation in the body.
“Unfortunately, diet and supplements can’t treat or cure your arthritis, however, symptoms may be eased or exacerbated as a result of changing what you eat,” says Holland & Barrett nutritionist, Emily Rollason. “A diet that allows you to keep your weight within a healthy range could be helpful to your arthritis as well as your wellness as a whole.”
Although, there’s no one-size-fits all diet for arthritis, research4 has uncovered that some foods could be helpful in managing symptoms.
“Look at eating a whole diet, high in plant-based foods, including spices such as ginger and turmeric and containing 1-2 portions of oily fish per week,” Emily suggests. “Also, try keeping a food diary. Recognising how food affects your condition is one way you can seek to minimise arthritis symptoms.”
In this post, we’re focusing on how a diet for arthritis could potentially help reduce any unnecessary inflammation around joints.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s an important way your immune system responds to infection and injury. It’s part of the healing process and can protect your body from further damage. However, inflammation can become problematic if it continues for too long or if it’s happening in a place that doesn’t need it.
There are two types of inflammation – acute and chronic. Acute inflammation happens after an injury. For example, when you sprain your ankle or cut your finger. It happens rapidly and is short-lived. Chronic inflammation describes a more persistent inflammatory response, that lingers on for months or years, causing sometimes harmful effects on your tissues and organs. It’s chronic inflammation that’s associated with arthritis.
The good news is, there’s some thought that diet may be able to offer benefits to those who want to keep chronic inflammation under control.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet for arthritis?
The food we choose to eat is one factor that influences the level of inflammation in our bodies. Generally speaking, following an anti-inflammatory diet means avoiding processed foods and instead, eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and foods containing omega-3 fatty acids.
One example of a diet that’s rich in anti-inflammatory foods is the Mediterranean diet.
What are the key foods in a Mediterranean diet?
A Mediterranean diet follows the traditional eating habits of people from the countries closest to the sun-soaked shores of the Mediterranean Sea. There are regional variations but expect your plate to be filled with plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, cereals and grains. You’ll also see moderate amounts of fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil. And what you’ll eat less of are dairy products and meat.
The Mediterranean diet is widely linked with many aspects of wellness, including a healthier heart, as well as benefits to some types of arthritis.
9 foods with anti-inflammatory properties
Here’s the lowdown on a few of our favourite inflammation-fighting food groups.
- Nuts and seeds
- Fatty fish
- Spices (e.g. ginger and turmeric)
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Green tea
- Certain oils (e.g. olive oil and flaxseed oil)
- Whole grains
Nuts and seeds
Sources include: Walnuts, pecans, chia seeds, flax seeds
Flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts are all rich in anti-inflammatory ALA5 – the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid.
Sources include: Salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies
These types of fish are potent sources of EPA and DHA (omega-3 fatty acids), which can contribute to reducing inflammation6. At least two portions per week is recommended.
Sources include: Berries, pomegranate, grapes, cherries, oranges, kiwi fruit, pineapple, and papaya
Berries in particular contain compounds called polyphenols and ascorbic acid (Vitamin C.) They provide antioxidant properties that can have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Sources include: Ginger, cinnamon and turmeric
Ginger decreases the production of several chemical substances that can cause joint inflammation. Turmeric has been found in some studies7 to support healthy joint function.
Sources include: Flaxseed, walnut and rapeseed oil
These oils contain ALA (Omega‑3 fatty acids) and oleic acid (Omega-9 fatty acids) giving them potential anti-inflammatory properties. Try to drizzle these on your food as a dressing, rather than cooking with them.
Sources include: Broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage and Brussels sprouts
Eating this vegetable family can have a positive effect on suppressing inflammation8.
Sources include: Green tea
Green tea contains antioxidants that are believed to reduce inflammation .
Sources include: Your tap
By flushing toxins out of the body, drinking water helps to fight inflammation. Dehydration may exacerbate arthritic conditions, so staying hydrated is a must.
Sources include: Rice, wheat, barley, bulgur wheat, buckwheat, millet, oats, spelt, and quinoa
Whole grains lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood. A high level of CRP in the blood is a marker of inflammation.
An example day of anti-inflammatory eating
Are you feeling inspired to anti-inflammatory diet? We asked our nutritionists to share ideas on how to build the principles of a Mediterranean diet into a day of eating.
- Breakfast Baked eggs and avocado with a sprinkling of cayenne pepper
- Lunch A hearty vegetable soup, with a small side salad drizzled in olive oil
- Dinner Salmon en papillote with asparagus, tenderstem broccoli and green beans with a chilli, garlic and ginger sauce. Or a mediterranean style vegetable and bean stew with wholegrain rice stuffed peppers
- Snacks Hummus and vegetable sticks, 25g of nuts or a handful of olives
- Drinks Water, green tea, herbal teas
Foods to avoid if you have arthritis
We’ve covered the positive, now the difficult part – the foods that maybe you should limit if inflammation is a concern to you. Yes, whilst some foods can help keep inflammation in check, others have been found to trigger it.
Certain food groups are thought to have inflammatory properties. For example, refined carbohydrates (white bread, pastries etc), chips and other fried foods, fatty red meat, and high sugar food and drink. Limiting these foods in your diet can have wide wellness benefits, including for some, improvements in joint health and the symptoms of arthritis.
“By limiting certain foods in your diet, some people experience improvements in their arthritis symptoms, but unfortunately there’s no definitive advice as experience will vary from person-to person,” says Emily. “There’s also a lot of misinformation out there regarding diets for arthritis, which people should be wary of. For example, cutting out food groups for extended periods of time without knowing if they affect you personally – as some advice suggests – could mean your body runs short of important nutrients.”
Instead, Emily suggests keeping a food diary as the best way to identify if a food intolerance is exacerbating inflammation and, as a result, increasing joint pain caused by arthritis.
“Under the advice and guidance of your doctor or dietitian, you could leave out a certain food from your diet for a period of time – probably a month minimum – and note any changes in your arthritis symptoms,” she suggests. “Then, reintroduce this food to see if it triggers your symptoms to flare-up again.”
5 foods commonly believed to aggravate inflammation
Omega-6 fatty acids
Taking in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s is thought to increase your risk of inflammation. But don’t rush into eliminating them from your diet entirely because foods containing omega-6 often also contain nutrients that offer important benefits.
For example, a particular omega-6 fatty acid known as arachidonic acid (mainly found in meats such as beef, pork and chicken, and also in eggs) has been shown to increase inflammation. Despite this, these foods can be beneficial too, so reducing rather than removing, can be the most sensible option.
Other Omega-6 fatty acids such as linoleic acid and gamma linoleic acid are commonly found in corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils. As a result, snack foods like biscuits, crackers and cakes are common sources.
Cooking meat at high temperatures
Frying, roasting, searing or grilling meat at high temperatures can raise the amount of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in the blood. AGEs are believed to increase inflammation in the body.
Again, these are common in snack foods. Trans fats are vegetable oils that have been processed to increase the shelf life of processed foods. These fats have been shown to increase inflammation.
A diet high in sugar not only adds to the risk of obesity but also inflammation. As a result, limiting desserts, sweet snacks, fizzy drinks and fruit juices can be beneficial.
Mono-Sodium Glutamate (MSG)
This flavour-enhancing chemical is used in ingredients like soy sauce and some feel this may trigger inflammation.
What about gout?
A post discussing diet for arthritis would not be complete without at least a brief mention of gout. <link to blog four: gout> It’s the variation of arthritis most commonly associated with diet, so it’s easy to assume adjusting what you eat is the obvious remedy for gout sufferers.
But first, there are lots of myths and misinformation about this particular type of arthritis. The most common is that the cause of gout is overeating and drinking too much alcohol – it’s where the ‘disease of kings’ label comes from. Although a diet heavy in beer and cheese can increase the likelihood of you suffering an attack of gout, it’s not the cause of the condition. That’s down to a high level of uric acid in the body. This causes crystals to form around joints, triggering inflammation, pain and discomfort.
Although even the most meticulously designed meal plan can’t completely prevent gout, eating foods that can decrease the level of uric acid in the body could help reduce the likelihood of future attacks. Advice includes, drinking less alcohol, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding eating large quantities of foods that are high in purines. This includes red meat, game, offal, oily fish and shellfish, foods rich in yeast extracts, and processed foods and drinks.
Summary: Can an anti-inflammatory diet for arthritis relieve chronic joint pain?
Eating a balanced diet, rich in anti-inflammatory foods can offer benefits to those who want to keep arthritis symptoms under control. This includes maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing inflammation.
However, there’s not a one-size-fits-all anti-inflammatory diet that can guarantee you relief from arthritis. Neither is there a sure-fire arthritis diet plan you can follow. The evidence simply doesn’t exist and what works for one person might not affect another person in the same way.
The best diet is the one that works for you. So, trial and error (under the guidance of a healthcare professional) could be the best way to identify which foods help or worsen your symptoms of arthritis.
Emily Rollason is a qualified Nutritional Therapist, achieving a Diploma from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition.
Working with Holland & Barrett for six years, Emily has valuable experience working on a one-to-one basis with clients with a variety of health concerns such as endometriosis, adenomyosis and aiding those looking to support certain dietary requirements, such as a vegan or vegetarian diet. Emily has a long history of working with customers to guide them on what products are best suited to help them with their ailments. Her particular interests in nutrition and wellness focus around digestive health, female health and allergies/ intolerances.
Last updated: 1 June 2020