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 UK live with joint pain due to arthritis.1
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 - 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 about 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 diet.2
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 ways.3
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, research has uncovered that some foods could be helpful in managing symptoms.4
“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.
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.
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 ALA – the plant-based omega-3 essential fatty acid.5
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 inflammation.6
At least two portions per week is recommended.
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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 studies to support healthy joint function.7
Handpicked content: Is turmeric good for arthritis?
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 inflammation.8
Green tea contains antioxidants that are believed to reduce inflammation.
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
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
Managing your weight
Reaching a healthy weight is vital for not just your overall health, but especially if you live with a form of arthritis.
Losing a few pounds will ease some of the daily pressure your body puts on the joints, especially the knees, hips and feet.
If you’re interested in losing weight, be sure to not try a crash diet as this can worsen some types of arthritis. Try the Mediterranean diet that’s full of healthy fats, oily fish and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Exercises for arthritis
Exercising can help you to maintain a healthy weight as well as maintain the flexibility of your joints.
Stretching daily can also be beneficial to improve flexibility and range of movement.
Consult your doctor before trying anything that may put excessive pressure on the joints.
They may also refer you to physical therapists to create a personalised exercise plan.
Lotions for arthritis
Creams and lotions can be applied onto the skin at the affected joint to help ease certain arthritis symptoms.
Lotions that contain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, are the most popular options and can be found in most supermarkets.
Looking for a natural, drug-free option? Devils claw has been used to help with the pain associated with osteoarthritis, in particular joint pain and inflammation.9
Recent trials suggest that devil’s claw is effective in the reduction of osteoarthritis-related symptoms.10
The herbal remedy is available in lotions, as well as supplements.
Handpicked content: Devil’s claw: benefits, dosage & side-effects
Hot and cold therapy
Heat therapy can help to relax and soothe muscles and help ease stiffness.11
Try applying a warm, not hot, heating pad or hot water bottle wrapped in a towel to the joint for around 15 to 20 minutes.
You could also try a warm bath. Cold therapy is used to reduce swelling and inflammation.12
Try applying an ice pack wrapped in a towel to the affected joint for short bursts of time, no longer than 10 minutes. You could also try an ice bath or a cooling spray.
Fish oil supplements for arthritis
You’ve probably already heard that fish oils containing omega-3 are good for your joints, brain and heart health.
That's due to omega-3 is made up of two compounds called DHA and EPA which have been linked to reducing cell inflammation.
As arthritis causes inflammation, upping your intake of fish oil supplements packed with omega fatty acids could help thanks to their natural anti-inflammatory effects.
Studies have also shown that fatty acids could help to reduce joint pain and stiffness.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout are great sources of omega-3.
If you don’t eat fish, omega-3 is also found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils or supplements like Algal oil or Ahi Flower.
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Glucosamine for arthritis
Glucosamine has been used to treat osteoarthritis in the past thanks to its ability to repair and rebuild cartilage.13
You may also find that glucosamine and chondroitin are combined in supplements.
Studies have shown that when taken in combination, it could help with osteoarthritis knee pain.14
Turmeric for arthritis
You may have already seen in forums people asking, ‘is turmeric good for arthritis?’ and it may be that you have some hiding in the back of your spice rack.
However, turmeric contains active ingredient curcumin that has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties with may help to reduce pain.
Curcumin’s effect on reducing inflammation means it can also help protect your joints from wear and tear.
According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food, it eased symptoms like stiffness and helped with joint movement.15
You can continue to add turmeric to your meals or chose to take it in a supplement form instead.
Black pepper is sometimes added to turmeric supplements, as many experts believe that black pepper aids the absorption of the active ingredient curcumin.
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MSM for arthritis
Methlysulfonylmethane (or MSM) is a natural compound that contains the mineral sulphur and is believed to have anti-inflammatory activities.
MSM supplements are often taken to ease arthritis and other joint or muscle aches and pains.
Apple cider vinegar for arthritis
Apple cider vinegar is believed to be anti-inflammatory, so this could be helpful for those who live with arthritis. Try adding a spoonful to your next glass of water.
Last updated: 9 August 2021