There's no hard evidence that any food can cause muscle or joint pain, but there is good evidence that foods can contribute to inflammation. Inflammation is your body's way of fighting disease and foreign invaders. If you have a long-term disease like arthritis, more inflammation means more pain.
Chronic inflammation and chronic pain go hand-in-hand, according to the Cleveland Clinic. They note that a healthy diet overall can reduce inflammation, a driver of pain in the body.
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There's a fair amount of research on joint pain and the effects of diet, particularly in arthritis patients. According to a January 2020 review in Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications (CCTC), rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that causes joint pain. The authors say that avoiding foods that promote inflammation — called pro-inflammatory foods — may be a way to reduce RA symptoms.
"At this time, there is not enough clinical evidence to support a specific food item's direct correlation with inflammation," says Monique Dorsey, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "Foods that may increase inflammation should be limited in an anti-inflammatory diet. These foods include processed foods and foods high in saturated or trans fat."
6 Foods That May Cause Joint Pain
1. Added Sugar
According to the Cleveland Clinic, any sugar added to food spikes blood sugar and resistance to insulin, all of which contribute to inflammation. Try eating fewer than 4 grams of added sugar for any prepared serving of food and not adding sugar to your food or drinks.
2. Trans Fats
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says trans fats raise your bad cholesterol, which increases inflammation. Although the FDA banned trans fats and phased them out of our food system in 2020, manufacturers can still include the fats in products if the amount is less than 0.5 grams. Restaurant foods and baked goods are common culprits.
Get in the habit of reading food labels and look for the trans fat content. Look for the word "hydrogenated" to find trans fat on ingredient lists as well.
3. Red Meat and Saturated Fats
Per the CCTC review, pro-inflammatory foods may include red meat and dairy products, which contain animal-based saturated fats. Red meat from cows, pigs, sheep or goats are high in these rich fats. Other sources are dairy products like milk, cheese, cream and butter, according to the VA.
4. Processed Meats
Processed meats are preserved meats like hot dogs, bacon and salami. Processed meats are high in saturated fats, which promote high cholesterol and inflammation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. They're linked to chronic diseases like cancer and heart disease, so make them a once-in-a-while thing.
5. Omega-6 Fatty Acids
According to the VA, omega-6 fatty acids are fats your body uses for energy. Omega-3 fatty acids are good for inflammation and heart health, but omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation if they overwhelm your healthy omega-3s. Keep these acids in check by eating healthier omega-3s from fish, nuts and olive oil.
Avoid omega-6s found in mayonnaise and oils from:
6. Refined Foods
These include carbohydrates that have been stripped of their nutrition and fiber through processing, and they act like added sugar in your body, according to the Cleveland Clinic. They're digested quickly, so they can spike your blood sugar and contribute to insulin resistance and inflammation.
- White bread
- White pasta
- White rice
Add These Foods to Reduce Inflammation
"Research is still being done to determine how different foods correlate with inflammation in the body. However, an anti-inflammatory dietary regimen that resembles the Mediterranean diet has been useful in treating various inflammatory diseases, including those that cause joint and muscle pain, such as rheumatoid arthritis," Dorsey says.
Dorsey recommends adding these anti-inflammatory foods to your diet:
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, tomatoes, strawberries and blueberries, which contain phytonutrients that may be protective against inflammation.
- Lean proteins such as chicken, fish and legumes.
- Healthy fats such as monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna.
- Whole grains, which can be found in brown rice, oats, barley and buckwheat and other grains.
"Although it can have a great impact, dietary habits should not be the only lifestyle modification made when attempting to reduce inflammation," Dorsey says. "Regular physical activity and adequate sleep are additional factors that can influence inflammation and should be considered as well."
Read more: The 6 Best Types of Exercise to Reduce Inflammation
- Mayo Clinic: “Mayo Clinic Minute: Fighting Arthritis With Food”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Relieve Pain as You Age”
- Monique Dorsey, MS, RD, LDN, Monique Dorsey, MS, RD, LDN, registered dietitian, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
- Cleveland Clinic: “5 Foods That Can Cause Inflammation”
- Contemporary Clinical Trials Communications: “Design of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet (ITIS Diet) for Patients With Rheumatoid Arthritis”
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: “Eating to Reduce Inflammation”
- FDA: "Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat)"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.