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When you suffer from common arthritis pain, whether it’s in your knees or knuckles, the last thing you want to do is to increase your suffering -- but you could be doing just that, depending on what you’re eating. Researchers have found that certain foods cause inflammation while others reduce it.
While osteoarthritis, the common "wear and tear" form of arthritis, has not been considered an inflammatory condition (compared to rheumatoid athritis, for example), recent studies suggest that inflammation does indeed play an important role. So an anti-inflammatory diet may ease your pain -- especially if it also helps you lose weight. Here's how:
Balance your essential fatty acids. You probably know that omega-3 fatty acids, found in coldwater fish, seeds and some nuts, are good for your heart, but now experts say they may also help reduce inflammation. You can reduce inflammation further by cutting back on your consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, found in corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils, as well as in snack foods, fried foods, margarines and other spreads, egg yolks and meats. Researchers say omega-6 acids activate the COX-2 enzymes that cause joint inflammation. (COX-2 inhibitors, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are commonly used in the treatment of arthritis.) Do your joints (and body) a favor by eating more fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines and tuna, as well as walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil and dark leafy greens -- and less processed and fatty fare.
Cut back on saturated fats, refined carbs and sugars. Consuming large amounts of saturated fat (found in red meat, poultry with the skin, full-fat dairy products and butter), refined carbohydrates and sugary foods and drinks (white bread, cakes, cookies, pastries, sodas) can promote inflammation throughout the body, notes Wahida Karmally, Dr.P.H., R.D., director of nutrition at the Irving Institute for Clinical and Translational Research at Columbia University in New York City. If and when you do eat meat, “look for leaner cuts [such as those marked ‘round’ or ‘loin’], trim the fat and have small amounts, no more than the size of a deck of playing cards,” advises Karmally. Certain foods high in saturated fats such as red meat, organ meat and shellfish also contain purine (a natural substance produced by the body that when broken down converts to uric acid), which has been found to increase the risk of gout, another form of arthritis.
Get your vitamins and minerals. The antioxidants in vitamin C boost immune function, while vitamin D reduces inflammation and inhibits the enzymes that break down cartilage. So consuming fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C, and getting vitamin D from fatty fish, fortified milk, cereals and orange juice is part of your anti-arthritis diet. Also, bulk up on fiber, which is associated with a decrease in C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of systemic inflammation, Karmally notes.
Maintain a healthy weight. Foods full of sugar, saturated fat and refined carbs are often high in calories, which can promote weight gain. And, you guessed it, being overweight can worsen arthritis pain and increase inflammation. “Research has found that when overweight or obese women lost 11 pounds, their risk of developing osteoarthritis decreased by 50 percent,” says Jason Theodosakis, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and author of The Arthritis Cure. If you’re overweight and already have arthritis, you can substantially reduce arthritis-related knee or hip pain by losing 10 pounds. In fact, a new study from Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark found that when obese people with osteoarthritis of the knee followed a reduced-calorie diet, they lost an average of 24 pounds and experienced a significant decrease in knee pain over the course of a year.
Dine like a European. The Mediterranean diet, which includes antioxidant- and phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, healthy oils (like olive oil) and fish, and is low in saturated fat and red meat, “helps with arthritis by reducing inflammation in the body,” says Dr. Theodosakis. At the University of Athens in Greece, researchers found that healthy adults who closely followed the traditional Mediterranean diet had, on average, 20 percent lower levels of CRP (a marker of systemic inflammation) as those who didn’t follow it as closely.
Adopt a sustainable diet. For your diet to have a positive effect on inflammation, “it has to be a way of life,” says Lona Sandon, M.Ed., R.D., an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “A lot of people want a quick fix, but it’s not enough to drink a bottle of grape juice and expect that to do the job. You have to eat this way consistently, seven days a week.” (Start by exploring 10 Foods That Soothe Arthritis).
Following a more plant-based diet is not a cure for arthritis, but it can help you lose weight, reduce your fat intake and reduce markers of inflammation, says Karmally. That's great for your heart as well. In short, altering your diet to help you slim down and reduce inflammation could be one of the best things you can do for your overall health -- and your arthritis pain.