While it's only human nature to avoid workouts or reach for higher-calorie comfort foods when you're sore and tired, it's important to figure out healthy food and exercise choices that work for your situation.
Reducing excess body weight is a key part of arthritis self-management, along with exercise, healthy eating, relaxation techniques, joint protection, and heat and cold therapy, and others.
For example, if you're obese or overweight with osteoarthritis, losing even 10% of your body weight can help reduce strain on your knees, reduce pain and possibly even reduce or delay the need for potential surgery — a powerful incentive!
Remember: the best way to determine an appropriate weight for you is to consult with a healthcare professional.
Here's what to keep in mind.
The impact of extra weight
How does extra weight affect arthritis? "Carrying extra weight can increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis, especially in load-bearing joints in the hips and knees and feet," notes Cristina Montoya, a registered dietitian who lives with arthritis herself. "That's simply because of the strain on the joints."
However, she adds, “researchers are beginning to understand that is just not obesity itself, but other systemic factors that come along with obesity, such as chronic systemic inflammation or insulin resistance." Those factors also contribute to the start or progression of joint deterioration and worsening arthritis.
In other words, being overweight or obese can boost the amount of inflammation you're experiencing. It also contributes to your body not being able to properly use glucose in your blood for energy (known as insulin resistance, which is associated with Type 2 diabetes and in turn, joint damage and joint pain).
Also, some arthritis medications may not work as well to treat rheumatoid arthritis if you're overweight, although the reason why is not yet clear.
The bigger picture
You can't just say, "go and exercise and eat the right foods," notes Montoya. "What we need to do is to build new skills to eat healthier." Working with a registered dietitian or watching an Arthritis Society Canada webinar on how to shop, how to prepare meals, how to keep healthy foods front and centre in your home and how to meal plan are all building blocks for success. "It's about changing behaviors."
Similarly, figuring out how to get more movement into your day is a great idea too. "The combination of exercise and a healthy eating program is what proves to be more successful for weight loss," says Montoya. Incorporate arthritis-friendly exercise ideas that you enjoy doing in your weekly routine.
Think anti-inflammatory foods
There are lots of delicious and nutritious anti-inflammatory foods out there that can help you feel satisfied and energetic, thanks in part to their vitamins, minerals, protein or fibre.
- 3 to 5 servings of vegetables each day (a serving is ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw vegetables)
- 3 to 4 servings of fruit each day (a serving is ½ cup fresh or frozen fruit or ¼ cup cooked)
- 2 to 3 servings of whole grains and pseudo-grains each day (a serving is one slice of bread or ½ cup cooked grains, cereal or pasta, like quinoa, barley, rice or oats)
- 1 serving of fatty fish once a week (a serving is 3 oz of tuna, trout, mackerel, salmon or sardines)
- 1 serving of legumes, 3 to 5 times a week (a serving is ½ cup of cooked chickpeas, lentils, white beans, black beans or soy beans)
- 4 to 6 servings of healthy fats each day (a serving is 1 tsp of olive oil, 5 olives or 1/8 of an avocado
- 1 to 2 servings of nuts or seeds each day (a serving is 1-2 Tbsp of nut butter, 8 walnuts or pecans, or 2 Tbsp of sunflower seeds)
Flavour your meals with spices like ginger, turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, sage, mint, parsley, rosemary, cilantro or oregano. For beverages, opt for water, herbal tea or green tea. One or two cups of coffee or cocoa are fine, too. Try small amounts of natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and cane sugar.
Other options include:
- 1 to 2 servings of dairy products or plant-based alternative products each day (a serving is ¾ cup of yogurt or 1.5 oz of cheese)
- 1 serving of lean meat per week (a serving is 2 eggs or 3 oz/deck of cards of chicken, lean beef
Try new things
For some, trying new foods is a way to keep healthy eating fun and interesting. Montoya says that's a Canadian plus: "An advantage of living here, in a multicultural environment, is you can open your eyes to more global meals." For example, if you don't usually eat a lot of legumes or meat-free meals, check out a vegetarian Southeast Asian cookbook or recipe website to get instructions and inspiration.
Or, if you'd prefer to stick to your tried-and-true meals and snacks, consider swapping out some ingredients to make the meals healthier.
That could be putting goat cheese and raspberries on whole grain toast for breakfast instead of jam on white bread or using pasta made with chickpea flour for a boost of protein and fibre, rather than standard white pasta.
Some of Montoya's other favourite recipes include:
How do you feel?
Aim for a loss of one-and-a-half to two pounds per week, says Montoya. Plus, she says, how you eat is as important as what and how much you eat. "Practice eating mindfully. Think, "how does that make me feel?" If you're eating a whole doughnut with coffee, and then you feel sluggish, is it worth it?" The main message: "Focus on improving healthy habits and quality of life."