citrus fruit arthritis

Arthritis Food Myths

Get the truth about foods commonly touted to relieve arthritis pain and inflammation.


Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian who has rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, often hears claims that particular foods affect arthritis pain.

“A patient will tell me her arthritis worsens if she eats sugar, or that she has less pain and stiffness if she takes a tablespoon or two of cider vinegar each day,” she says.

Sandon thinks healing food myths are sparked by a search for alternatives to arthritis medications, which have side effects and risks that worry some people. “It is very appealing to find something natural, but there’s no food in the world that can do what medicine can,” says Sandon, assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

So why do such myths persist? “The more often you hear it, and the louder and more shrilly you hear it, the more believable it becomes,” says Richard Panush, MD, a professor in the division of rheumatology at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

With that in mind, here is the truth behind the hype about some foods commonly touted as capable of helping or hurting arthritis symptoms.

Myth: A Dozen Gin-soaked Raisins a Day Provide Pain Relief

Science. Raisins are often treated with sulfur dioxide gas to preserve their color, and sulfur has been explored for its role in joint health. Some 25 years ago, Russian researchers reported a sulfur-containing compound helped lessen destructive joint changes in mice, but the results were inconclusive at best. Gin is made from juniper berries, which were used in the Middle Ages for their purported anti-inflammatory properties. That, also, has never been proven.

Bottom Line. No scientific study has shown this folk remedy reduces arthritis pain or inflammation.

Myth: Drinking Cider Vinegar Eases Pain

Science. Some people contend beta-carotene in apple cider vinegar destroys free radicals involved in ravaging the immune system, but the amount of beta-carotene in the vinegar is infinitesimal. Others say acid crystals cause joints to become stiff and vinegar dissolves them. Gout is the only form of arthritis that involves crystals – uric acid crystals, formed from an excess of uric acid in the body – and cider vinegar doesn’t relieve gout pain.

Bottom Line. Apple cider vinegar belongs in your kitchen, not your medicine chest.

Myth: Dairy Products Make Arthritis Worse

Science. In a study Dr. Panush conducted, published in 1983 in Arthritis & Rheumatism, people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) on a dairy-free diet fared no better than those who didn’t eliminate dairy. In fact, 2014 research published in Arthritis Care & Research found women who drank more milk had less osteoarthritis (OA) progression, and a study in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases found that milk may help prevent gout.

Bottom Line. Low-fat or nonfat milk and other dairy products are safe for most people with arthritis.

Myth: Nightshade Vegetables Aggravate Arthritis

Science. Tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers are just some of the nightshade vegetables that contain the chemical solanine, which some have branded a culprit in arthritis pain. But no formal research has ever confirmed the claim, and the vegetables contain essential nutrients. In fact, a study in the Journal of Nutrition in 2011 showed yellow and purple potatoes lowered blood markers for inflammation in healthy men.

Bottom Line. People with arthritis may benefit from nightshades, although some people may have sensitivities to certain vegetables.

Myth: A Raw Food Diet Relieves Symptoms

Science. In the late 1990s, Finnish scientists reporting in the British Journal of Rheumatology put a group of people with RA on a raw vegan diet supplemented with beverages rich in lactobacilli – bacteria considered good for the gut and possibly the immune system. Compared with those not on a raw diet, they reported more symptom relief while on the diet, but researchers found no objective differences in disease activity, duration of morning stiffness or pain. Half of those on the diet quit prematurely because of nausea and diarrhea.

Bottom Line. Eating more fruits and vegetables is beneficial, but if you’re going to increase your intake of raw veggies, do it slowly so the extra fiber won’t upset your stomach. It’s not clear this dietary change brings arthritis relief, though.

Myth: When it Comes to Red Wine, More Is Better

Science. Research has found that resveratrol, a compound in red wine, appears to have anti-inflammatory effects. That includes a study published in 2014 in Nucleic Acids Researchthat found resveratrol stops the formation of inflammatory factors involved with cancer, cardiovascular and chronic inflammatory diseases. Moderate amounts of wine may indeed bring about health benefits, from protecting the heart to reducing food-borne illnesses. However, excessive drinking appears to increase the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines, according to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers.

Bottom Line. Drink wine in moderation – no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. And before taking a sip, check with your doctor to make sure alcohol doesn’t interact with your arthritis medications. Excess alcohol intake, including wine, is a known risk for inducing gout attacks.

Myth: Coffee Causes Gout

Science. Researchers found a decreased risk for gout in association with day-to-day coffee drinking after studying tens of thousands of women in the Nurses’ Health Study, according to a study in a 2010 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. That corroborates a 2007 finding in Arthritis & Rheumatism that long-term coffee intake was associated with a lower incidence of gout in men.

Bottom Line. Coffee does not cause gout, and may lower gout risk.

Myth: Citrus Fruits Cause Inflammation

Science. Websites abound warning people with arthritis away from citrus fruits because they supposedly promote inflammation. On the contrary, citrus is rich in vitamin C, and the long-term Framingham Heart Study in Massachusetts showed OA progression dropped by more than half in people who consumed at least 152 milligrams of vitamin C a day.

Bottom Line. Don’t shy away from citrus fruits. Their vitamin C might protect against OA pain and is critical in the formation of the major components of cartilage. In addition, vitamin C is an antioxidant that can quench cartilage-damaging free radicals.

Updated May, 2015

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