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Osteoarthritis Diet: Foods to Eat and Avoid

US News & World Report - Health logo US News & World Report - Health 11/10/2019 Vanessa Caceres
a person holding a bowl of fruit: Farme's hands hold an old kitchen pot full of fresh ripe strawberries. © (Getty Images) Farme's hands hold an old kitchen pot full of fresh ripe strawberries.

If you have osteoarthritis, then you know how much joint pain can affect your daily life.

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis, afflicting more than 30 million adults across the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Osteoarthritis is more common as we age because there's a breakdown of the cartilage – the material that cushions our joints – over time. That leads to pain, swelling and stiffness.

The knees, hips, lower back and neck are the most common areas for osteoarthritis to occur, although it can happen in any joint.

Over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription medications are two common treatments for osteoarthritis. However, one big change that can help you feel better when you have osteoarthritis is to improve your diet. What you eat can make a difference when it comes to osteoarthritis.

Inflammation is our body's response to an invader, such as a virus. However, if there's too much inflammation in the body, over time, it can contribute to health problems. Osteoarthritis is characterized by inflammation, says registered dietitian Daniela Novotny, who is an instructor of biomedical sciences at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Additionally, what we eat can increase or reduce the amount of inflammation in our body. So the more you eat foods that can lead to inflammation, the more you may make your arthritis symptoms worse.

Conversely, if you eat foods that counter inflammation, you have a better chance of combating your osteoarthritis symptoms, Novotny says.

“One of the best lifestyle choices for easing osteoarthritis pain is maintaining a healthy diet,” says Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “This helps reduce pain and inflammation and increase movement and function without dependence on medication.”

In addition to countering the effects of inflammation, an osteoarthritis diet can also help you lose weight. What you eat has an effect on your weight – and many people with osteoarthritis benefit from losing weight because added body weight puts extra pressure on joints. This is especially important with the ongoing obesity problem in the U.S., says registered dietitian Laura Gibofsky with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian and certified health coach with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, says there are some other ways that a healthy diet can benefit you if you have osteoarthritis:

  • You’ll lower your blood pressure.
  • You’ll protect against chronic conditions.
  • Your joint function improves.
  • You can help prevent future damage to joints.

So just what foods should you eat and what foods should you avoid if you have osteoarthritis?

There’s no magic bullet food that will reverse your osteoarthritis, Gibofsky says. It’s about consuming a varied diet with the right combinations of food. Here’s the scoop on foods to eat and foods to avoid when you have osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis: Foods to Eat

1. Fruits and vegetables. It’s probably no surprise that fruits and vegetables are excellent choices to improve your health. They contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation in the body. They also are high in fiber, which helps your digestive health and fills you up quicker. According to experts, these fruits and vegetables are particularly rich in inflammation-fighting antioxidants:

Although there’s been a widely spread myth that nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants and red bell peppers can help you avoid arthritis symptoms, there’s no proof that this is true, Kimberlain says.

2. Omega-3 fatty acids. Found in fatty fish like salmon and tuna, ground flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts, omega-3 fatty acids help to neutralize inflammation in the body, Novotny says. Omega-3 fatty acids also can help lower the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in the body, which are not as good for us. Aim for two 3- to 4-ounce servings a week of fatty fish to help boost your omega-3 fatty acid intake.

“By eating a diet rich in fatty acids, patients notice a decrease in pain and morning stiffness and an increase in physical function,” Derocha says.

3. Nuts. Walnuts, almonds and pistachios contain healthy monosaturated fats and can fight against inflammation. Nuts also contain vitamin E, magnesium and fiber.

4. Extra-virgin olive oil. A type of fatty acid found in olive oil called oleocanthal may inhibit inflammatory compounds in the body. Aim for one to two tablespoons daily in your diet. For instance, you might use olive oil to stir fry vegetables, brown rice and some nuts as a tasty side to grilled salmon, Novotny suggests. Other healthy oil choices include avocado and walnut oils.

5. Garlic and onions. If there’s no hot date in the works for the evening, then load up on garlic and onions. “Garlic and onions contain a compound (called diallyl disulfide) that may improve the symptoms of osteoarthritis for many sufferers and help slow down the damage of cartilage,” Novtony says. These also could be great additions to your stir-fry dishes.

6. Soy. Soy is low fat, high in protein and fiber and healthy overall, Kimberlain says. It’s also a good alternative if you don’t like or can’t eat fish but still want to consume more omega-3 fatty acids. Good sources for soy include tofu and edamame.

7. Beans. The fiber in beans can help lower the level of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) in the blood, Kimberlain says. Beans also have heart and immune system benefits and are rich in folic acid, magnesium, iron, zinc and potassium.

Osteoarthritis: Foods to Avoid

It’s probably no surprise that the usual suspects like sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for all of us, but they are especially bad if you have osteoarthritis. Here are some details on foods to avoid or consume minimally if you have osteoarthritis:

  • Saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are in animal products such as meat and full-fat dairy. Trans fats are in processed, fried and fast foods such as margarine and French fries. Foods with saturated or trans fats may taste good, but they can lead to inflammation, which makes your arthritis worse.
  • Added sugars. Added sugars can increase a compound called cytokines, which stimulate inflammation. Read your food labels. You may be surprised to find how much added sugars are in cereals, candies, juices, yogurts and other foods. Sugar can go by many names; look out for words ending in -ose to find sugar-containing ingredients. Men should have no more than 36 grams (nine teaspoons) of added sugar a day, and women should have no more than 25 grams (six teaspoons) daily, according to the American Heart Association. At the same time, don’t rely instead on an artificial sweetener like aspartame, as its effects on arthritis are unknown, Derocha cautions.
  • Refined carbohydrates. White rice, white bread and foods made with white flour are commonly high in refined carbohydrates. Foods with high levels of refined carbohydrates help our bodies produce advanced glycation end products, and that stimulates inflammation, according to the Arthritis Foundation. This is in contrast to foods made with whole grains, which are healthier and higher in fiber.
  • Monosodium glutamate. Also known as MSG, this can trigger chronic inflammation; look out for it in Asian foods and soy sauce, as well as some prepared soups, salad dressing and deli meats, Derocha says. The Food and Drug Administration has classified MSG as "generally recognized as safe," but its use remains controversial. While there is no clear link between MSG and inflammation, some experts do recommend avoiding it.
  • Alcohol. Keep any alcohol consumption to a minimum, as it can cause inflammation.

Make Small Changes and Know What Motivates You

If you usually eat the typical American diet that’s high in processed foods and sugar, then making the switch to healthier choices for osteoarthritis can seem overwhelming. Some people work best by making changes gradually, Gibofsky says. Others know that cold turkey, all-at-once changes are more effective. Know what motivates you best.

You also can use smaller plates, such as salad plates, to serve your meals. This will help you to eat less. When prepping your plate, fill it up with veggies first, Gibofsky advises.

Working with a registered dietitian and your health care provider can help you tailor your food choices to your specific needs.

On a final note, physical activity plays a big role in improving osteoarthritis. Low-impact exercises, such as walking or cycling, are a great way to get moving and can be easily incorporated into your daily routine, Derocha says. Start any new physical activity routine slowly and with guidance from a physician or physical therapist.

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report


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