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Arthritis Today

Foods That Fight Inflammation

Learn which foods can help or hurt your arthritis.

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Cancer, heart disease, obesity – these are three of the most common, serious health problems in the United States. Know what they all may have in common? Inflammation. The same joint inflammation that causes arthritis may be associated with other health problems. Your eating habits can play a big role in reducing inflammation and helping those conditions.

Cause of Inflammation

Scientists know that the enzymes cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) are major causes of joint inflammation; that’s why you may take medications – such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which block COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes, or COX-2 inhibitors – to treat your arthritis. Researchers discovered that COX-2 enzymes become more active and cause more joint inflammation when you take in more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3s are the inflammation-fighting fatty acids found in cold water fish such as salmon and tuna. If you don't eat a healthy diet, it is easy to consume far fewer of these than omega-6 fatty acids – which are found in egg yolks and meats; corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oil; and are prevalent in many snack foods, fried foods, margarines and other spreads. In fact, many of the foods people overindulge in during “snack attacks” are linked to increasing joint inflammation and obesity. 

Diet and Inflammation

One way to help fight inflammation with food is by eating less of the "bad stuff" – processed and/or fried food, for instance – and more of the "good stuff," like veggies, fruits, nuts, tea and even small amounts of dark chocolate. Many plant-based foods contain antioxidants and phytochemicals, both of which may decrease the activity of the COX-2 enzyme, reducing joint inflammation.

Some small studies have looked at the direct impact of specific diets and foods and arthritis. According to a 2011 review in Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who followed a Mediterranean diet – which features lean protein like fish and poultry and is high in plant-based foods such as beans, veggies and olive oil – reported a decrease in joint tenderness and an improvement in their sense of well being. Another small study cited in the review found that in some people with RA, vegan and vegetarian diets brought symptom improvement. 

Alexis Ogdie-Beatty, MD, instructor in medicine in the rheumatology division at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, notes that many people with arthritis who start eating fewer processed, sugary foods – whatever the diet – find that they feel better.

That's because sugary, high fat and processed foods are known to promote inflammation and can cause painful flares, whereas many whole foods and whole grains, especially those high in fiber, have been shown to lower inflammation. Still, it's not always so simple. Several healthy foods, including whole-grain and dairy products, as well as nightshade vegetables including potatoes and eggplants, seem to trigger arthritis symptoms in some people – even though studies show these types of foods are good choices for most people with arthritis.  

Dr. Ogdie-Beatty says reactions to so-called "trigger foods" are highly individual; for one of her patients, chocolate was a even trigger.

Good for Your Knees and Your Wardrobe

By eating a healthier diet, you're also more likely to lose weight. That's good news for your joints, not just your wardrobe. A study in Arthritis & Rheumatism found that among overweight and obese adults with knee osteoarthritis, each pound shed resulted in a four-fold reduction in the load exerted on the knee. Translation: if you're overweight, losing one pound would take four pounds of pressure off your knees. 

And because fat cells can produce cytokines – proteins that promote inflammation – losing weight helps decrease inflammation in your body.

Foods to Avoid With Gout

The exception here may be gout. In general, people with gout should avoid large amounts of beer, red meat, shellfish and other foods high in purines, which can cause uric acid buildup – and painful symptoms. 

To feel your best, whatever type of arthritis you have, Dr. Ogdie-Beatty has this simple, sound advice for self-management: eat heathy, get regular exercise and maintain a normal body weight. 

Learn about the Ultimate Arthritis Diet

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