The link between what you eat and how you feel is real, which is great news for people with arthritis. Research suggests that anti-inflammatory diets (low in sugars, carbohydrates and gluten and high in omega-3 fatty acids, olive oils and fiber) can help reduce joint pain and stiffness. Besides a healthful boost, this type of diet almost always leads to some surprising and rapid weight loss, taking pressure off bones and joints. Don’t be intimidated by the mistaken idea that you have to lose 25 lbs, an especially difficult task when joint pain restricts how much exercise you can do. The rule of thumb is that every 1 lb of weight loss reduces the force distributed through the hip, for example, three-fold. A little bit of weight loss has a big impact!
Patients often ask me about supplements. Despite what you may read in magazines and on the internet, there is very little scientific evidence supporting the use of dietary supplements. And, because this is an unregulated industry, many common dietary supplements have been found to be filled with unhealthy ingredients, or do not consist of what they claim. I will review dietary supplements in a future blog post.
The utility of vitamin supplementation for arthritis is also mostly unproven. I encourage patients with arthritis to glean vitamins and nutrients from the food they eat. The first and most important, simplest step is this: stay away from processed foods. Cook your meals. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, which help the body by neutralizing and removing free radicals from the bloodstream. Nuts and oily fish may have having anti-inflammatory powers, use these frequently.
Vitamin D has an important, albeit not understood, role in osteoarthritis. Vitamin D deficiency is endemic; the only way to get it is to absorb it through the skin. You should get out in the sun for 15 minutes a day, and supplement by taking Vitamin D 2000 international units a day. Magnesium helps Vitamin D promote bone health – take a small amount each day. Folic acid is important for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
Spice your foods with ginger, basil, turmeric, green tea, and rosemary, which appear to have some naturally anti-inflammatory properties. Choosing proteins and oils high in Omega-3 fatty acids (such as walnuts, salmon, spinach) may help maintain joint and cardiovascular health.
Dietary allergies, as well as food “intolerances” can cause diffuse joint pain. Some people find that removing gluten or dairy from their diet reduces stiffness and overall achiness, whether or not they have proven celiac disease.
Last, reduce carbohydrates. I am Italian -- if I eliminated pasta or bread, I’d never eat! However, you can try to eliminate carbohydrates from two meals a day, such as breakfast and dinner, and then eat whatever you want at lunch. Most people who reduce carbohydrates, and specifically eliminate sugars, find their generalized achiness, joint pain, and daytime fatigue dramatically reduce.
Even small changes are better than doing nothing at all. To get you started, here are some recommended dietary guidelines from The Arthritis Foundation:
Fish. About three to four ounces or more, twice a week. Best sources are the fatty fish, salmon, tuna, sardines, herring, anchovies, scallops and other cold water fish.
Nuts & Seeds. Eat 1.5 ounces of nuts daily. Walnuts, pine nuts, and almonds are great choices.
Fruits & Veggies. Aim for nine or more servings daily (one serving = 1 cup of veggies or fruit or 2 cups of raw leafy greens. ) Colorful fruits and veggies are best – the darker or more brilliant the color, the more antioxidants it has. Good ones include blueberries, cherries, spinach, kale and broccoli.
Olive oil. Two to three tablespoons daily. Extra virgin olive oil goes through less refining and processing, so it retains more nutrients than standard varieties.
Beans. At least one cup, twice a week . The more the better! Red beans, small red kidney beans and pinto beans rank among the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top four antioxidant-containing foods.
Victoria Brander, MD, is Associate Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, specializing in arthritis, at NorthShore University HealthSystem