Best Grains for Arthritis
Learn which grains may help reduce inflammation.
Best Grains for Arthritis
Eating the wrong types of grains can aggravate inflammation and can potentially worsen joint symptoms. Learn about the basic grain types, the effects that they can have on your body and which grains can help manage arthritis.
Grains are made up of three parts: The bran (the outer skin of the grain kernel), the germ (the innermost part that grows into a new plant) and the endosperm (the center part that provides food for the plant). Whole grains contain all three parts. Refined grains have removed the bran and germ, which contain most of the vitamins, minerals and protein. Whenever possible, avoid highly processed or refined grains.
Examples of refined grains include white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes. Because of their simple structure, these carbs break down in the body rapidly. “The body turns them into sugar more quickly, and sugar is highly inflammatory,” says Barbara Olendzki, nutrition program director of the Center for Applied Nutrition at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. In addition to having little nutritional value, refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood. Not only is increased inflammation bad for arthritis, but it can also increase your risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Grain-Free Diet and Arthritis
Some diets that limit grains, like the paleo diet, may claim to reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). This is in part because grains contain lectins, or carbohydrate-binding proteins. Some research suggests lectins bind to carbohydrate-specific receptors on immune cells called lymphocytes, which may trigger an inflammatory response. Therefore, the theory goes that eliminating lectin-containing foods (notably grains) might reduce symptoms in people with inflammatory types of arthritis, like RA.
However, research hasn’t confirmed the connection between whole grains and inflammation, and there are many good reasons to keep this food group in your diet. Whole grains are rich in antioxidants, which protect cells from damage, and B vitamins. They are also high in fiber, which binds to “bad” LDL cholesterol and carries it out of the body before it can clog arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Eating whole grains may also lower your risk for type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Plus, “[Whole grains] feed beneficial bacteria, or the microbiome in our gut,” Olendzki says. Having a healthy microbiome with enough “good bacteria” may boost the immune system and help dial down inflammation.
Better Grain Choices
To maximize nutrition while minimizing inflammation, stick to whole grains when you shop or cook. Many of these grains are also gluten-free (labeled with a GF below), so you still have plenty of choices if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
- Amaranth-GF: Although amaranth isn’t officially a grain, its nutrient composition is similar to cereal grains. Amaranth is high in protein, has a nutty flavor and you can pop it like popcorn or turn it into porridge by boiling it in water.
- Barley: An ideal addition to soups, stews and risotto dishes, barley is loaded with 6 grams of fiber per cup.
- Brown rice-GF: Because it has not had its bran and germ stripped away during processing, brown rice is nutrient-rich. Use it as a replacement in any recipe that calls for white rice. Just note you’ll need to use more water and adjust cooking times.
- Buckwheat-GF: Buckwheat is technically a fruit, yet you can use this high-protein ingredient in noodles, crepes, pancakes and muffins.
- Bulgur: This nutty-tasting grain comes from whole-wheat that’s been partly cracked. Use it in recipes, just as you would rice or couscous.
- Millet-GF: Millet is a grass that’s similar to corn. It can be used as an alternative to rice, or added to bread and muffin recipes.
- Quinoa-GF: This versatile, high-protein seed is an ideal grain substitute. Research finds quinoa might suppress the release of immune substances called cytokines, which could be helpful for both preventing and treating inflammation.
- Sorghum-GF: This cereal grain is rich in protein. Use sorghum flour instead of white flour in breads, cookies and other recipes.
- Rye: Often used to make rye bread, whole rye has been shown in research to suppress hunger, which might make it a useful weight-loss tool.
- Whole oats-GF: Steel-cut and other whole oats are high in protein and are naturally gluten-free (although most commercially available oats are contaminated with wheat). Have them for breakfast or use them in recipes.
- Whole wheat: Swapping whole-wheat flour for white in your recipes will increase your nutrient intake and potentially lower inflammation.
When you buy pre-packaged foods with these grains, make sure they contain the real thing. Some breads and crackers have added brown coloring to make them look like whole grains, or use words like “multigrain” and “wheat” on the package. Look for ‘whole grain’ as the first ingredient on the label.
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