Best Grains for Arthritis 

Learn which grains may help reduce inflammation. 

Choosing which type of pasta to cook for dinner or what bread or cereal to have with breakfast doesn’t seem like a big decision, until you consider the effect certain grains can have on your body. Eating refined grains might aggravate inflammation, potentially making your joints hurt more. Whole grains may be better choices with arthritis. Here's why.

Pro-Inflammatory Grains

Grains are made up of three parts: The bran is the outer skin of the grain kernel, the germ is the innermost part that grows into a new plant, and the endosperm is the center part that provides food for the plant. Whole grains contain all three parts. Refined grains have had the bran and germ removed, which contain most of the vitamins, minerals and protein. When considering your options at the grocery store, avoid refined grains. Not only are these highly processed grains limited in nutrition but they can also worsen inflammation throughout the body.

Examples of foods made with refined grains are white bread, white rice, cookies and cakes. Because of the grain’s simple structure, these carbs break down in the body rapidly and turn into sugar. Refined grains have been linked to higher levels of inflammatory markers in the blood, which is not only bad for arthritis but may also increase your risk for other inflammatory conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Grain-Free Diet and Rheumatoid Arthritis

You might have read articles touting the paleo diet or similar diets to help reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). The premise behind going grain-free is at least partially based on lectins – carbohydrate-binding proteins found in grains. Some research suggests lectins bind to carbohydrate-specific receptors on immune cells called lymphocytes, triggering an inflammatory response. The theory is that eliminating lectin-containing foods (notably grains) might reduce symptoms in certain people with RA.

But research hasn’t confirmed any connection between whole grains and inflammation, and there are many good reasons to keep them in your diet. Whole grains are rich in B vitamins and in antioxidants, which protect cells from damage. They are high in fiber, which binds to fatty acids like LDL cholesterol and carries them out of the body before they can clog arteries and lead to a heart attack or stroke. Eating whole grains may your lower risk for type-2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. They also are food sources for the beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome.

Better Grain Choices

To maximize nutrition while minimizing inflammation, stick to whole grains or similar foods when you shop or cook. Many of these alternatives are also gluten-free (labeled below with GF), which you need only if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance.

  • Amaranth, GF: 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: Brown rice has not had its bran and germ stripped during processing, so it is nutrient-rich. Use it as a replacement in any recipe that calls for white rice, but allow for a longer cooking time.
  • Buckwheat, GF: 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 as you would rice or couscous.
  • Millet, GF: Millet 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 suggests it might suppress the release of pro-inflammatory proteins in the body called cytokines, which could be helpful for preventing 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 oats for breakfast or use them in recipes.
  • Whole wheat: Replacing white flour with whole-wheat 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 grain, 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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