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Your diet plays a bigger role than you may think in easing joint pain.
While there is no cure for arthritis, the 24 percent of adults in the United States who experience the condition do have options for mitigating the achy, stiff, uncomfortable joint pain it causes. According to experts, there are diet changes worth considering that can go a long way toward lessening symptoms. Before we jump into a list of no-go foods, here’s a quick primer on how arthritis affects the body and why adopting a low-inflammatory diet could be key to easing pain.
“Arthritis is a degeneration of the joint,” says Sonali Khandelwal, MD, a rheumatologist at Rush University Medical Center. “Joint pain is the most common clinical symptom, but arthritis can also involve the tendons and ligaments,” she adds. Symptoms include stiffness, swelling in the joints, sharp shooting pain, decreased range of motion, and muscle weakness, and usually occur in the knees, ankles, hips, fingers, back, neck, and wrists.
There are two main types of arthritis: osteoarthritis and inflammatory arthritis.
Osteoarthritis is typically a degenerative disease that develops in the aging process but can also happen early on due to injury or overuse, says Dr. Khandelwal. “Wear and tear on the joints, and recurrent, or repetitive stress injuries are the most common situations where I see generalized osteoarthritis,” she adds. Physical sports, running on hard pavement, text thumb (seriously!), and tech neck, also known as cervical arthritis, are all common culprits. Women are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, but genetics and obesity can also up your risk.
Inflammatory arthritis is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes overactive and begins to attack your tissue and joints, instead of germs, viruses, or other foreign substances. “We diagnose a lot of women and men in their mid-twenties and thirties with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, but some inflammatory arthritis can present later on in life,” says Dr. Khandelwal. Obesity, genetics, and smoking can increase your risk of inflammatory arthritis.
Your diet and food choices won’t single-handedly eliminate all arthritis woes, but a low-inflammatory diet can help limit the pain and reduce symptoms. “There are certain foods that cause more inflammation [in the body], and it directly affects the joints,” says Dr. Khandelwal.
There is no one cure-all diet to totally eliminate arthritis pain but read on to see the eight foods you should try avoiding to reduce inflammation and curb symptoms.
If you read the label on a packaged meal or snack, and half of the ingredients are chemicals or words you don’t know, you should steer clear, says Dr. Khandelwal. Processed foods contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs), and too much of this chemical can accumulate in the bloodstream and trigger inflammation. But reducing your consumption of processed foods (think sausage, bacon, beef jerky, mayonnaise, and butter) can lower your AGE levels and help reduce inflammation in the body to ease arthritis symptoms.
Okay, technically alcohol is not a food, but it does cause major inflammation in the body, says Dr. Khandelwal. “We know very well that alcohol can cause direct inflammation and detriment to arthritis,” she stresses. Alcohol causes acute or chronic inflammation due to a protein called C-reactive protein (CRP), and the more CRP that is present in the blood, the more inflammation. So, to help reduce those CRP levels and minimize arthritic inflammation, try cutting out or reducing alcohol consumption.
“Multiple conditions in arthritis, especially inflammatory arthritis like gout and rheumatoid, have been linked to high fat intake or high red meat intake,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “The heme protein in red meat is highly inflammatory and that is very well reported,” she adds. Red meats like beef, pork, lamb, and veal, are also high in saturated fat which provokes inflammation and heightens arthritis symptoms. To help reduce pain, swelling, and joint inflammation, try going meatless at least most of the week. But if you do eat red meat, reduce your portion sizes. Treat meat as a side dish, rather than the main attraction. Hello, veggies, fruits, and fiber-filled carbs!
Legend says milk builds strong bones, but the lactose and saturated fats in dairy can actually cause inflammation, says Dr. Khandelwal. But don’t panic! Dairy is a wide category from cheese, to yogurt, to ice cream, and it may not be necessary to cut all dairy products. Research suggests that foods with saturated fats like cheese, cream, and whole milk, promote inflammation in the body, but plain yogurt may actually help reduce unpleasant inflammatory symptoms. Different bodies respond to different foods, so see what works best for you. “If you feel worse on a certain dairy product, then avoid it,” says Dr. Khandelwal.
Gluten does not cause inflammation in everyone, but research shows that people with rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis may be at a higher risk for gluten intolerance. “A lot of people do an elimination diet with gluten and think their joints feel better,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “It doesn’t necessarily mean they have celiac disease, but they could have a gluten sensitivity.” So, if your joint pain is particularly bad after eating pizza or a sandwich on wheat bread, your body might be telling you something. Try eliminating gluten for a period of time to see if symptoms subside and joint pain is relieved.
You should always try to limit your sugar intake, but added sugar in candy, soda, ice cream, and even some condiments like barbecue sauce or ketchup can heighten inflammation and worsen arthritis symptoms. “Sugar is a direct trigger for a cascade of inflammation, let alone metabolic syndrome or pre-diabetes,” says Dr. Khandelwal. So, to keep those less-than-ideal arthritis symptoms at bay, watch your added sugar intake and always check food labels. Packaged goods are known to contain an alarming amount of added sugar.
Not. All. Carbs. Are. Equal! Complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, quinoa, barley, and sweet potatoes are needed for energy, but refined carbs like sugary breakfast cereals, white bread, white rice, pastries, and pasta, may worsen arthritis symptoms. Refined carbs lack fiber, elevate blood sugar levels, and are difficult to break down, so as your body tries to remove the sugar and refined grains from your bloodstream, it creates an inflammatory response. Refined carbohydrates are definitely something to avoid, but you don’t have to avoid carbs altogether, explains Dr. Khandelwal. Instead, stick to 100 percent whole grains and fiber-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, and legumes.
“Salty foods are linked to hypertension and they promote inflammation,” says Dr. Khandelwal. Foods like pizza, canned soup, pre-packaged frozen meals, and savory snacks like chips, crackers, and pretzels can cause fluid retention in the body, which is directly correlated to inflammation, she explains. Plus, salty foods, which also often include refined sugars, are not nutrient-dens and may even up your risk of developing inflammatory arthritis. Instead of racking in the sodium, focus on fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, and white meat. Oh, and always drink plenty of water to flush toxins and control hypertension!


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