Bad news: diet can’t cure arthritis. Good news: research suggests that switching up the kinds of food you eat may help you manage arthritis symptoms. And generally speaking, maintaining a healthy weight gives you more energy and puts less strain on your joints, so a balanced diet comes into play there too. A good rule of thumb: Maximize nutrients and minimize extra calories by choosing nutrient-rich foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein and lower-fat dairy products. Here’s what you need to know.
Know your arthritis type
There are more than 100 types of arthritis, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet. People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), for example, tend to see results from eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and may struggle with symptoms if they’re underweight. People with gout reduce their risk of flares by limiting red meat and alcohol.
Talk to the experts
Did you know that many arthritis medications can create problems with digestion or absorption of nutrients from the food you eat? A pharmacist and a registered dietitian can help you understand any possible interactions between your medications and your diet and make suggestions about what foods to boost or avoid.
Reach for fruits and veggies
Try to have at least one vegetable or fruit at every meal and as a snack. Some tips to get the most out of your produce: Eat at least one dark green (broccoli, romaine lettuce) and one orange (carrots, sweet potatoes) vegetable every day; choose brightly coloured produce like berries and tomatoes; steam, bake or stir fry veggies with just a bit of salt or fat.
Get smart about fats
Polyunsaturated fats (omega-3 and omega-6 fats from fish like mackerel and salmon and nuts and seeds like walnut and flax) and monounsaturated fats (canola and olive oil, almonds and cashews) are the healthiest choices. Sprinkle flax on your oatmeal, whisk up your own salad dressing with olive oil, eat fish twice a week and choose omega-3 enriched products like eggs and milk.
Pick your protein
Lean protein helps your body repair damage and helps to keep your immune system functioning properly. Choose chicken, seafood, beans (pulses), nuts, seeds more often.
Consider your iron levels
Anemia—a condition where you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin to carry oxygen to your tissues—is fairly common with arthritis, due to a variety of causes. There are two types of iron found in foods: heme iron (from red meat and other animal products) and non-heme iron (from spinach, legumes and dried fruit, among others). For better absorption of non-heme iron, enjoy some vitamin C-rich foods like citrus, tomatoes or peppers at the same time. Tea interferes with iron absorption, so drink it between meals, not with meals.
Get your vitamin D
Some research suggests that low vitamin D levels can worsen arthritis symptoms. Your body produces vitamin D when your skin is exposed to sunlight, but it can be hard for Canadians to get enough sun exposure. Milk is fortified with vitamin D, and other food sources include eggs, margarine, liver, sardines and salmon. You can also check with your health-care provider about a vitamin D supplement.
Check your calcium
Calcium helps to prevent brittle bones (osteoporosis). Since you’re at higher risk for osteoporosis when you have arthritis, choose calcium-rich foods, and again, talk to your health-care team about a calcium supplement. Good calcium sources: low-fat (skim, 1% or 2%) cheese, milk and yogurt and canned salmon and sardines.
Ask about supplements
If you take methotrexate, a folic acid supplement may help prevent side effects like gastrointestinal intolerances and liver abnormalities. Talk it over with your doctor. How about other supplements, like herbal remedies or glucosamine? These aren’t licensed for use as drugs for arthritis, so discuss the current research with your health-care team.