The Best (and Worst) Foods for Arthritis Pain

Use this guide to find out what foods can ease arthritis pain and which ones to steer clear of.

When it comes to arthritis pain, what you eat can make a major difference. Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, M.D., MBA, SVP Clinical Strategy, Sharecare breaks down which types of foods to reach for and which ones to avoid at all costs. “The good thing about a diet that’s beneficial for arthritis is that it is going to be beneficial for the rest of your health, so you don't have to follow some tricky plan,” says Dr. Gillespie. “The very best way to get these beneficial minerals and vitamins is through your food. Many studies have shown that people who eat certain diets have much better levels of health. Very few studies have shown that you can replicate those health benefits with a pill,” she says. Read on to learn more so you can plan accordingly when you head out to the grocery store. 

More: 7 All-Natural Arthritis Treatments

Eat: Omega-3 Fatty Acids

“Omega 3s are polyunsaturated fats that have an anti-inflammatory effect, which is why they can be so beneficial for arthritis sufferers,” Dr. Gillespie advises. She says trying to eat fatty fish two times a week is a great place to start. Incorporate salmon, mackerel, sardines, and halibut. “If you're not eating fish, it's a good idea to take a fish oil supplement,” she suggests. Your doctor might suggest two to four grams of EPA + DHA a day to help with inflammation. 

More: 5 Reasons to Add Cod Liver Oil to Your Diet

Eat: Turmeric or Curcumin

“There have been early studies that these spices have an anti-inflammatory effect for people with many autoimmune conditions including psoriasis,” Dr. Gillespie shares. Turmeric has been shown to help reduce pain, inflammation, and stiffness in rheumatoid arthritis. “You can find this spice in a good curry or potentially take it in supplement form if your doctor recommends it,” she adds. You could also have turmeric in a golden milk latte or sprinkle it on veggies, fish, and chicken.

More: 7 Health Benefits of Turmeric

Eat: Vitamin-C Rich Foods

“The foods that have vitamin C such as oranges, strawberries, and kiwis, may be helpful in managing [symptoms of] osteoarthritis, but I don’t think studies have seen that same effect in autoimmune arthritis,” says Dr. Gillespie. You’re already getting vitamin C from fruits, but keep in mind that it’s also found in colorful bell peppers and spinach, too.

More: Seasonal Fruit and Vegetable Calendar

Eat: The Rainbow

“The bottom line is that you should eat more whole foods,” says Dr. Gillespie. Worry less about the specific micronutrient or macronutrient. “The beauty is that if you're eating whole foods and colorful foods, you’re going to be eating a wide array of nutrients—Mother Nature is going to ensure that you are eating plenty of micronutrients and macronutrients. A colorful diet isn’t just good for arthritis, it’s good for your weight,” she reminds us. Losing weight reduces pressure on your joints and can help ease pain and inflammation.

More: 8 Creative Uses for Spinach

Avoid: Salt

Dr. Gillespie herself was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in 2007 and on medications until 2011. “I started making huge lifestyle changes and I haven't gone back. I learned what I needed to avoid—including sodium-rich foods—which was hard because I love salt.” There have been studies that show that higher salt intake can lead to specific types of inflammatory proteins and overproduction of them increases our inflammation and often worsens our autoimmune conditions, she adds. 

More: 5 Secret Salt Bombs

Avoid: Fried Foods and Processed Foods

Fried and processed foods are high in trans fat, which we know not only increases our bad cholesterol but can promote inflammation, says Dr. Gillespie. Swap those French fries for sweet potatoes. Skip the packaged crinkly snacks in your office vending machine and have a piece of fruit with some raw nuts instead.

More: 9 Healthy Junk Food Alternatives

Avoid: Sugar

You’ve heard it before but it’s worth repeating—sugar plays a role in chronic diseases, and studies show when sugars bond with certain amino acids or fats in a process called “glycation” there is a prevalence of osteoarthritis. “[Both sugar and processed carbs] increase oxidation, inflammation, and can damage joint cartilage,” says Dr. Gillespie.

More: 7 Sugar Substitutes to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth

Avoid: Overdoing It With Alcohol

“Alcohol is kind of funny because research shows that people who drink moderate amounts of it tend to have a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis,” says Dr. Gillespie. But, if you don’t drink alcohol now, there's no evidence that starting to consume it will lower your risk of rheumatoid arthritis. “People who drink moderate amounts may have a lower risk, but it may just be because they are also leading a healthy lifestyle,” she points out. 

More: The Plan to Cut Back on Drinking 

Avoid: Red Meat

A high consumption of red meat could increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. One British study found that people who ate red meat daily had twice the risk of people who only consumed red meat about twice a week. A survey of more than 1,000 arthritis patients revealed that red meat, sugar, fat, salt, caffeine, and nightshade plants (e.g., tomatoes, eggplant) most commonly worsen their conditions, according to the Physicians Committee of Responsible Medicine. Eliminating foods one at a time for a few weeks can improve symptoms for some people so you know which foods exacerbate your pain and swelling.

More: 10 Ways to Sneak More Vegetables Into Your Meals

Avoid: Soda

That soda habit not only hurts your waistline, but it could be causing you pain—literally. Packed with sugar and devoid of nutrients, consuming one or more sugar-sweetened sodas daily was associated with women having an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis in one study. Swap your soda for a glass of water to reap weight loss benefits and a reduction in associated health risks.

More: 4-Week Soda Detox 

Fat Substitutes: Could They Be Leading to Your Weight Gain?

They're hiding in everything from low-fat cottage cheese to protein shakes.

Fat substitutes are compounds that resemble the chemical and physical properties of certain fats and oils and are often used to replace conventional fats (butter, oil) in baking and frying. They can help bring calorie counts down.

But fat substitutes are almost like secret ingredients that hide in plain sight, says Mark Schatzker, author of the upcoming book "The End of Craving: Recovering the Lost Wisdom of Eating Well."

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