Healthy Eating

What you need to know about food and inflammation

A woman stands at a cutting board chopping vegetables

Understanding inflammation

One challenge of living with arthritis is managing inflammation. There are two different types of inflammation, acute and chronic. Our immune system sends out inflammatory cells to protect us from bacteria and viruses or to help heal an injury, which is important to our health. This is called acute inflammation. However, sometimes our immune system overreacts and responds even when there is no danger present. This is known as chronic inflammation, which is common with arthritis.

Acute inflammation happens when you get an injury like a cut or bruise and your body immediately responds to protect and heal the injury. When inflammation happens for no clear reason and lasts a long time or comes and goes often, this is considered chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation causes the body to continually think something is wrong and the immune system to attack the body.

Inflammatory arthritis often causes chronic inflammation, or periods of inflammation that are not caused by a specific injury or a harmful invader like a virus. Since inflammatory arthritis can affect many joints throughout the body at the same time, when the body is in an inflammatory phase, the goal is to reduce inflammation throughout.

One way inflammation can be impacted is by the type of foods we eat. By eating a diet of anti-inflammatory foods, your body might experience less inflammation, or fewer inflammation events. Following an anti-inflammatory diet is beneficial for all forms of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, regardless of your body weight.

Although there is no special diet that can cure arthritis, consuming a balanced diet paired with lifestyle changes such as increased physical activity and exercise can have a powerful influence on improving arthritis-related symptoms.

Anti-inflammatory foods

Anti-inflammatory foods that contain vitamins A, C, D, and E, as well as omega-3 fats can help reduce inflammation in the body. There are many amazing, everyday foods that contain these nutrients and can help you to manage your levels of inflammation. Some examples are tomatoes, berries, citrus fruits, fatty fish, olives and olive oil, as well as dark leafy green vegetables.

Contrary to common belief, citrus fruits do not cause inflammation, but have anti-inflammatory properties and contain antioxidants. Nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers are often mistakenly blamed for arthritis pain, however, there is no scientific evidence that suggests this. Instead, these vegetables are full of nutrients, and recommended for a balanced diet. For more information, visit our article on The Truth About Nightshades and Arthritis.

The following foods are recommended to help strengthen bones, joints, and muscles as well as to help the body reduce inflammation and disease. Consider incorporating these foods into your meals regularly to help maintain a balanced diet.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Oily fish contains omega-3 fatty acids which are fats with anti-inflammatory properties. It is recommended to have at least two portions of fish per week, and to incorporate some fatty fish. Examples of fatty fish include sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, trout and anchovies. You can also choose the canned versions of these fish. If you don’t enjoy eating fish, talk to your doctor, your pharmacist or your dietitian about possibly taking an omega-3 supplements instead, such as fish oil or krill oil.

You can also add plant-based omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. Some examples of plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed, chia seeds, and walnuts. Ground flaxseed can be sprinkled on your food or used in baking. Flaxseed oil is also available, either to add to your meals or in capsules as a supplement.

Extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil contains many compounds that promote good health and reduce inflammation. One, oleocanthal, acts in the body in a way that is similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). While the amount of oleocanthal found in a typical serving of olive oil would only provide a small fraction of the anti-inflammatory properties found in NSAIDs, in combination with a Mediterranean diet, or other anti-inflammatory foods, the benefits could certainly have an impact on the level of inflammation experienced.

Dairy and Dairy Alternatives

Dairy products are rich in calcium and Vitamin D, which work together to help increase bone strength. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption. Dairy also contains proteins that help build muscle. Building muscle and increasing bone strength helps to support and reduce the amount of stress put on joints. It also helps to improve posture, balance, activity, stamina, and weight management, and can also improve one’s mood. It is recommended that individuals choose lower-fat milk or dairy products. Choosing a fermented dairy product like cheese, yogurt or kefir can also contribute to maintaining a healthy gut micorbiota which will help your body maintain lower levels of inflammation.

Some plant-based, dairy-free beverages are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and can produce similar benefits to dairy products. Be sure to check the nutrition label on each product to determine how much calcium and vitamin D, protein and sugar your favourite product contains. Depending on what the product is made from, it may also carry additional benefits, such as hemp milk that is high in omega 3 fatty acids.

Other helpful foods

Broccoli contains a compound called sulforaphane, which is believed to slow the progression of osteoarthritis. Additionally, broccoli is full of vitamins K and C, and bone-strengthening calcium.

Green tea contains high levels of compounds called polyphenols, which are antioxidants that help reduce inflammation and slow the rate of cartilage damage. Coffee also contains polyphenols, however coffee should be consumed in moderation since coffee and caffeine may interact with and, in some cases, reduce the efficacy of commonly prescribed arthritis medications.

Garlic contains a compound called diallyl disulfide, which is believed to work against enzymes/proteins in the body that can contribute to cartilage damage.

Nuts are packed full of calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and fiber and healthy fats. Overall, nuts are great foods for heart health and an anti-inflammatory diet.

Foods to avoid

Foods to avoid are namely those that facilitate the already-present inflammatory states found in arthritis. Examples of foods to avoid are:

  • Processed and added sugars – not only do these increase inflammation, they add extra calories that can lead to weight gain. Having increased levels of adipose tissue is linked to increased levels of inflammation.

  • Consuming high-fructose corn syrup may also increase numerous inflammatory markers in humans. In a randomized clinical trial that divided people into groups based on whether they drank regular soda, diet soda, milk, or water, only people in the regular soda group had increased levels of uric acid. Uric acid contributes to inflammation and insulin resistance.

  • Saturated fat (such as red meat, or processed meats like hot dogs) - in addition to increasing inflammation, this also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancers and other conditions.

  • Artificial trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils (such as hydrogenated margarines, fried fast foods, packaged cookies and cakes containing hydrogenated fats) are the unhealthiest fats and have been shown to increase inflammation and disease risk. Artificial trans fats also lower good cholesterol (HDL) and could weaken the function of the cells lining your arteries, which greatly increases the risk for heart disease. Their consumption has been linked to high levels of inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein or CRP).

  • Refined carbohydrates (such as white bread, white rice, chips, pastries) - refined carbohydrates have most of the original fiber content removed, though fiber is important for beneficial bacteria in your gut. Refined carbs, on the other hand, promote the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria.

  • Excessive alcohol has been linked to high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP and can worsen inflammation as well as potentially damage the gut.

This information was reviewed in February 2022 with expert advice from:
Kim Arrey, BSc, RD 
President, Kim Arrey Nutrition