Nutrition-wise blog

Does diet have a role in rheumatoid arthritis?

By Jennifer K. Nelson, R.D., L.D. and Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. March 16, 2013

In rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory and immune reactions target joints (and in some cases body organs) causing swelling, pain and deformity. An estimated 1.5 million Americans have this condition.

Emerging research seems to indicate a link between diet and inflammation. Although the exact mechanisms are still unclear, some foods seem to offer protection against inflammation. Even though studies are still underway, here are some tips that might help:

  • Eat fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats play a role in modifying the inflammatory process and regulation of pain. Salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel and herring are high in these fats. Vegetable sources include soy foods (tofu, soy-based milk, yogurt or cheese, and edamame). Walnuts, pecans and ground flaxseed are good sources too. Although extra-virgin olive oil doesn't contain omega-3s, it does have some anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Eat more foods rich in antioxidants. Oxidation is a natural process associated with inflammatory arthritis that leads to cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants such as vitamins C, E, carotene, lycopene and flavonoids slow down this process. Colorful vegetables and fruits are rich in antioxidants: leafy greens including spinach and kale, beets, blueberries and cranberries. Beans, nuts, green tea, red wine, dark chocolate, and certain spices such as cinnamon, ginger and turmeric are also rich in antioxidants.
  • Ask your doctor about supplements. Omega-3 fish oil supplements has been shown to improve pain, tenderness and stiffness related to rheumatoid arthritis. Research suggests that about 2.7 grams a day is needed. More studies are needed to determine if supplemental forms of vitamin of C, E and other antioxidants have any affect. At this time food sources (listed above) are preferred. However, before starting any supplement — including herbal remedies — talk with your doctor.

Does a healthy diet based on plenty of plant foods, healthy fats and that includes several fish times a week sound familiar? This healthy eating pattern has long been recommended for reducing the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, and preventing unwanted pounds. So what do you have to lose? Give it a try if you have rheumatoid arthritis — it might just help ease your symptoms.

- Jennifer

March 16, 2013