Certain foods can worsen the rheumatoid arthritis inflammation that leads to joint pain. As part of your RA management strategy, consider taking these foods off your menu.
There’s no cure-all diet for rheumatoid arthritis. But if you suffer from RA symptoms such as joint pain and inflammation, it’s smart to stick to a nutritious diet and avoid foods that may make RA symptoms worse.
Where should you start? “You want to reduce inflammation [by avoiding inflammatory foods], and you want to avoid foods that can lead to being overweight,” says Marian T. Hannan, DSc, MPH, an associate professor of medicine and public health at Harvard and senior scientist and co-director of the Musculoskeletal Research Center at the Institute for Aging Research at Hebrew SeniorLife in Boston. Extra pounds put strain on your joints and cause further pain and injury.
Foods That May Worsen RA Symptoms
“There’s no proven diet that will do anywhere near as well as the current drug therapy,” says Patience White, MD, vice president for public health policy and advocacy at the Arthritis Foundation. “There’s no diet that’s going to put your arthritis in remission.”
But what you eat — or don’t eat — can make a difference. Here are some foods to think twice about, as they could contribute extra calories and provoke inflammation that worsens your RA symptoms:
1. Red meat. Many cuts of red meat contain high levels of saturated fat, which can exacerbate inflammation and also contribute to obesity. Red meat also contains omega-6 fatty acids, which can contribute to inflammation if your intake is too high. Some people with RA have reported that their symptoms improve when they rid their diet of red meat. However, lean cuts of red meat may provide protein and important nutrients for people with rheumatoid arthritis, without causing additional inflammation.
2. Sugar and refined flour. Your blood sugar levels can surge after you’ve eaten simple carbohydrates that are easily broken down by the body. Such foods include sugary snacks and drinks, white-flour bread and pasta, and white rice. A spike in your blood sugar prompts the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which can worsen your RA symptoms if the inflammation affects your joints. These foods can also cause you to put on the pounds, stressing your joints.
3. Fried foods. Cutting out fried foods can reduce your levels of inflammation, according to researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Their study, which was published in the 2009 Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, reported that fried foods contain toxins called advanced glycation end products, which can increase oxidation in the body’s cells. Fried foods are also high in fat and can contribute to obesity.
4. Gluten. Gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, may contribute to inflammation in some people. Doctors believe that the effect can be even greater for people with an autoimmune disorder such as celiac disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
5. Alcohol. The effect of alcohol on rheumatoid arthritis is not clear-cut. Moderate alcohol consumption has actually been shown to decrease the risk for RA and slow its progression, according to a 2012 review of studies published in Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America. A BMJ study published that year had similar findings: Women who drank more than three glasses of alcohol a week had half the risk for rheumatoid arthritis that teetotalers had. However, drinking too much alcohol can cause a spike in the body’s levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), according to research published in Alcohol and Alcoholism in 2009. CRP is a powerful signal of inflammation, and the study’s findings indicate that overindulgence in alcohol could increase inflammation and be detrimental to RA.
6. Processed foods. Processed foods, from supermarket-shelf snacks to meals that come ready-to-eat or require minimal cooking, tend to be loaded with ingredients that cause inflammation. Such products are packed with sugar, refined flour, and saturated fats — all making the food irresistible but also unhealthy. Always read the Nutrition Facts label and the ingredient list on processed foods to make wise choices that won’t aggravate your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
As you work to improve your diet, remember that researchers have not been able to agree on a standard RA diet, and a change in the foods you eat isn’t a substitute for treatment. Instead, think of these adjustments as steps to better RA management and overall wellbeing.