Registered dietitian Cristina Montoya shares her expertise on meal planning for people with arthritis.
Pain and fatigue are the main reasons people with arthritis are reluctant to embark on a meal planning journey. Isn't it more enticing to grab a quick bite or order pizza? The problem is that a typical Western diet high in processed meats, refined starches, unhealthy fats, added sugars, and low in fibre and antioxidants is linked to an increased incidence of chronic inflammation.
Meal prep refers to preparing and storing one or more weekly meals and snacks in advance. Meal prep is a great way to save money at the grocery store, add more anti-inflammatory foods to your menu, decrease stress, and control your weight. Most meals are prepared from fresh ingredients, and little processed food is used.
Incorporate the principles of an anti-inflammatory way of eating into your meal prep by adding foods rich in fibre, vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, and phytochemicals. Developing a meal prep practice is a learning process. These five steps can help pave your way:
1. Keep ingredients simple
Use recipes with five to ten main ingredients, not including spices and herbs. Pain impacts valued life activities, including cooking and gardening, so you want to keep meal preparation simple.
Using cooking methods and assistive devices that don't strain your joints or muscles will make your meal prep experience more enjoyable.
2. Keep convenience foods handy
Stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables, as well as low-sodium canned legumes. These are helpful as a backup for those weeks when you don't get a chance to visit the grocery store or when fatigue and pain get in the way. Use pre-cut salads, vegetables and fruit for less chopping and quick meals.
3. Batch cook at least one day a week
Cook double or triple the portion you need to enjoy the first days of the week, and then freeze the rest.
4. Meal prep within your schedule
Take advantage of those days when you have less fatigue and pain. Some weeks you will be able to prepare more meals and snacks than others, and that's okay.
5. Meal prep for one meal or snack at a time
Think about a meal or snack in which you would like to include more anti-inflammatory ingredients. Is it breakfast, lunch, or dinner? Perhaps your afternoon snacks need a boost of antioxidants. Do whatever works for your levels of pain and fatigue.
An anti-inflammatory way of eating is a flexible eating pattern focusing on plant-based foods, but you may also enjoy lean animal products in moderation. Here are some general guidelines to follow when incorporating anti-inflammatory ingredients into your menu.
Fruits and vegetables: about half your plate should include fruits or vegetables. For example, when eating a meal with whole grains and meat or legumes, include a side of roasted veggies or a piece of fruit. If having a snack, combine veggies or fruits with a protein such as nut butter or cheese. Fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, and K and polyphenols, reducing inflammation.
Include a combination of five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. A suggested serving is 1 cup of raw leafy vegetables or ½ cup of cooked fresh or root vegetables.
Don’t fear whole grains: whole-grain bread, pot barley, wild rice, oats, corn, and pseudo-grains like quinoa are packed with B vitamins such as thiamin, vitamin B6, vitamin B3, which are essential for energy metabolism. Whole grains are also an excellent source of manganese and copper, potent antioxidants. Look for the whole grain symbol on your bread and cereals.
Include two or three servings of whole grains a day, such as one slice of bread or 1/2 cup of cooked grains, cereal, or pasta.
More beans and legumes: beans and legumes such as kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, edamame/soybeans/tofu, fava beans, lentils (dahl, black lentils) are an excellent source of fibre and protein and have shown benefits in reducing insulin resistance and inflammation.
Include one or two servings a day, such as 1/2 cup cooked beans or legumes.
Mighty nuts and seeds: nuts such as almonds, walnuts, pistachios, hemp seeds, and chia seeds are excellent sources of fibre, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids. These can all help lower your inflammatory response while keeping you feeling fuller for longer.
Include one or two servings a day, such as 2 tablespoons of seeds, 1-2 tablespoons of nut butter, 7 or 8 walnuts or pecans or 12 -15 almonds.
Healthy fats: Olive oil is the primary source of healthy fat in the Mediterranean diet. It contains monounsaturated fats and polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Alternatively, you may use other oils derived from hemp, avocado, grapeseed, or coconut.
Include at least four to six servings a day, such as 1 teaspoon of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of regular salad dressing, 5 olives, or 1/2 of a Hass avocado.
Enjoy fatty fish: include salmon, sardines, mackerel, albacore tuna, Atlantic herring, or mussels, at least once a week (if tolerated) for high-quality Omega 3s.
Low-fat dairy products (2-3.5% MF) or plant-based alternatives: preferably consume fermented dairy products for their content of live bacteria, such as organic plain Greek yogurt, Kefir, cheese, feta cheese, cottage cheese, or paneer.
Include one or two servings a day, such as 1 cup milk or plant-based beverage, ¾ cup yogurt, or 1 ½ ounce of cheese, paneer, or tofu (about the size of six stacked dice).
Lean animal products in moderation: shellfish, skinless chicken breast, thighs or legs, lean beef, veal, goat/lamb, eggs.
To reduce inflammation, it’s best to limit yourself to one to three servings of lean poultry or meat per month. A suggested serving is 3 oz, about the size of a deck of cards or 2 eggs.
Spice it up: some spices such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, oregano, basil, rosemary, sage, and thyme have shown antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties related to their high content of phytochemicals.
Natural sweeteners are best for your gut: try using cane sugar, honey, or maple syrup.
Hydrate with water throughout the day. Herbal tea infusions, cocoa powder-infused beverages, coffee, and red wine in moderation can be part of the anti-inflammatory way of eating, given their high polyphenol content. Limit caffeinated beverages to one or two cups a day.
While the following meal plan samples give you a general idea of how to create an anti-inflammatory meal plan, it's essential to seek the guidance of a Registered Dietitian to ensure that you are getting the nutrients and essential vitamins and minerals your body needs.
* Salmon sandwich: Combine 1 small, chopped celery stick, 1 tbsp lemon juice, 1 tbsp plain Greek yogurt, a dash of cayenne pepper, flaked salmon, and salt and pepper to taste in a small bowl. Place salmon salad on a slice of whole-grain bread and enjoy.
Remember, the best dietary pattern is the one that makes you feel your best, which can be different for everyone. Any dietary pattern containing lots of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, gut health-promoting foods, Omega-3 fats, herbs and spices tends to be most beneficial to your health and anti-inflammatory lifestyle.