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Arthritis Today

What to Eat—And Avoid

Learn to fill your plate with foods that add nutrition and reduce inflammation.

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Although there are no specific nutritional guidelines for an “arthritis diet,” most doctors recommend eating healthfully in general. That doesn’t mean you have to give up all of your favorite foods. Healthy eating is simply incorporating more of the foods that help maintain your weight and reduce inflammation, and less of the foods that lead to obesity and inflammation. Here’s a guide to the food groups you should eat—and the ones you want to avoid.

Food Groups for a Healthy Arthritis Diet

Fruit and Vegetables

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables. These plant-based foods are packed with antioxidants, which can help reduce blood markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-6.

Recommended servings of fruit and vegetables vary based on your age, gender and activity level. Adults need to eat about 1½ to 2 cups of fruit, and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day. When it comes to picking fruits and vegetables, “A variety of colors ensures a variety of nutrients, says Christine McKinney, RD, a clinical dietitian who works with arthritis patients at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore. Choose a rainbow of colors:

  • Dark Green: spinach, greens and broccoli 
  • Red: strawberries, cherries, tomatoes and beets
  • Yellow: bananas, squash
  • Orange: sweet potatoes, squash, oranges and carrots

Whole Grains

One quarter of your plate should be filled with whole grains -- foods made with the entire grain kernel, including whole-wheat flour, bulgur, oatmeal, whole cornmeal and brown rice. Whole grains can lower C-reactive protein levels in the blood. Try to eat 3 ounces of whole grains daily by switching from white bread to whole wheat, and using whole-grain cereals and pastas.

Some people might want to be careful about the types of whole grains they eat, though. Gluten—a protein found in wheat and other grains—has been linked to inflammation. Although the research hasn’t proven a link, if gluten bothers you, switch to gluten-free whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, and quinoa.

Dairy

Dairy products are rich in vitamin D, which helps strengthen bones, and might also help with arthritis. A 2013 study linked low vitamin D levels to a greater risk of disease activity in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Adults need about 3 cups of dairy per day. One-and-a-half ounces of cheese, for example, equals 1 cup of milk. Choose low- or no-fat milk, cheese and yogurt instead of the full-fat versions.

Protein

Most Americans get enough protein each day; the challenge is to choose the right kinds. Red meat can be high in saturated fat and contribute to inflammation. Instead, pick lean or low-fat protein sources, such as chicken, seafood, beans, peas, nuts and seeds.

Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish such as salmon, can help tame inflammation. If you’re not a fan of fish, omega-3 fish oil supplements can also help. The recommended dosage for RA and osteoarthritis (OA) is up to 2.6 grams, twice a day. An added benefit of omega-3s is that they can reduce the risk of heart disease, which is more common among people with RA.

Foods (and Drinks) to Avoid with Arthritis

What about the foods you should avoid or eat in very small amounts? These healthy diet destroyers include:

  • Saturated and trans fats. Found in foods like butter, meats, and processed foods such as cookies and candy, saturated and trans fats raise cholesterol and may contribute to inflammation.
  • Salt or sodium. Found primarily in processed foods, salt can elevate blood pressure. The Nutritional Guidelines recommend that people with high blood pressure, diabetes or kidney disease consume 1,500 milligrams (mg) – about ½ teaspoon – of sodium each day. Everyone else should aim for 2,300 mg or less.
  • Sugars. Found in processed foods and sodas, sugars offer no nutrition—just empty calories. High blood sugar may also stimulate the production of inflammatory substances that can damage joints.

Become familiar with nutrition labels on prepared foods, which will help you choose foods low in saturated and trans fats, sodium and added sugars.

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