Painful, stiff joints from osteoarthritis can put a damper on your daily activities. But before you give up the hobbies you love, take a look at what you're eating to see if your diet might be contributing to the problem. Avoiding some of the worst foods for osteoarthritis may turn pain into gain.
How Diet Affects Your Joints
According to the Arthritis Foundation, osteoarthritis, or OA, happens when cartilage between your bones breaks down, causing bones to rub against each other. And obesity is one of the biggest modifiable risk factors for OA. That's because the more weight you carry, the more stress it puts on your joints, especially those in your hips and knees.
If you're overweight or obese, a diet that promotes weight loss might be your best defense against OA because every pound of weight lost relieves four pounds of pressure from joints in the lower part of your body, the Arthritis Foundation says.
Dropping a few pounds might also reduce inflammation that contributes to joint pain, according to a study published in December 2018 in Cytokine & Growth Factor Reviews. Researchers found that fat tissue secretes compounds that directly cause inflammation in cartilage.
The Arthritis Foundation adds that a diet that leads to high blood sugar can trigger or worsen arthritis. High glucose levels create extra inflammation in your body and stiffen cartilage, making it more likely to break down.
Foods to Avoid for Osteoarthritis
"Individual foods are unlikely to trigger OA or worsen symptoms," Melissa Ann Prest, DCN, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist for the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, says. Instead, she encourages looking at your overall diet because it's diet that causes the excessive weight gain that plays the largest role in developing OA and progressing joint damage.
When it comes to foods to avoid for osteoarthritis, Prest says to limit these foods because they typically add up to excess calories:
- Baked goods or desserts.
- Sweetened cereals.
- Soft drinks with sugar.
- Red meats, sausages, bacon or hot dogs.
- Packaged dinners and snack foods.
- Fried foods and fast foods.
Taking a pass on ultra-processed foods (any ready-to-eat food that comes in a package) is a good starting point for anyone with OA. Prest says that these are often high in refined oils, saturated fats and added sugars, which tend to promote inflammation.
In addition, a study published in May 2018 in the British Journal of Nutrition found eating ultra-processed foods also promotes weight gain, possibly because processed foods are less filling than whole foods, so it's easy to eat more than you need.
Mediterranean Diet for Osteoarthritis
The Arthritis Foundation says an eating pattern like the Mediterranean diet is helpful for anyone with OA because it promotes a healthier weight and blood sugar and is considered anti-inflammatory. According to Harvard Medical School, the Mediterranean diet includes an abundance of whole foods like:
- Whole grains like oats, farro, quinoa and brown rice.
- Legumes (beans, lentils and dried peas).
- Olive oil.
On this diet, foods like red meat, sweets and desserts are eaten infrequently.
A study published in August 2018 in Nutrients found that among nearly 9,000 people, there was less OA among those who closely followed the Mediterranean diet. Also, those who had OA and followed the Mediterranean diet had lower inflammation markers and less cartilage damage compared to those who didn't follow the diet as closely.
Prest says the Mediterranean diet can be helpful for symptom management, and these swaps can help:
- Choose fresh fruit instead of sweets and desserts.
- Choose fish and legumes for proteins instead of meat.
- Choose whole grains like oats, quinoa or whole wheat bread and cereals instead of refined grains made with white flour.
- Stick to healthy fats like olive oil instead of refined oils like soybean or corn oil.
Harvard also has these tips:
- Snack on nuts and olives for healthy fats.
- Add a salad to every meal.
- Eat fish two to three times each week.
While Prest says that no diet is guaranteed to prevent OA, "Eating better may improve symptoms, and it's definitely beneficial in the bigger picture of overall health."
Read more: 7 Ways to Manage Arthritis Pain and Stiffness
Is This an Emergency?
- Arthritis Foundation: “Osteoarthritis”
- Arthritis Foundation: “Mediterranean Diet for Osteoarthritis"
- Cytokine & Growth Factor Reviews: “Pro-inflammatory Cytokines: The Link Between Obesity and Osteoarthritis”
- Melissa Ann Prest, DCN, MS, RDN, CSR, LDN, registered dietitian nutritionist, National Kidney Foundation of Illinois; spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago
- British Journal of Nutrition: “Ultra-Processed Food Consumption and Excess Weight Among US Adults”
- Harvard Medical School: “A Practical Guide to the Mediterranean Diet”
- Nutrients: “Osteoarthritis and the Mediterranean Diet: A Systematic Review”