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There are no magic flexibility foods (if only it were that easy!), but your diet does have a huge impact on your joints. The choices you make at the grocery store and at restaurants can help you on your path to a more flexible, younger you. “Consuming a well-balanced, healthy diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and heart-healthy fats is the best way to keep your body flexible,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, MEd, a registered dietitian and the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic.
Cherish Your Cartilage
Cartilage is one of the real workhorses of the human body. It doesn’t have the glamour of muscles (when was the last time you caught someone trying to show off their cartilage in a bikini?). But it’s so important for range of motion. Unfortunately, this slippery substance that allows your bones to slide across one another at the joints is vulnerable. Arthritis attacks it, and if you don’t nourish it — through good diet and through exercise — it won’t be able to do its job.
“The basic framework of cartilage is collagen, a protein that is elastic and allows your joints to absorb shock,” Jamieson-Petonic says. Keep your collagen strong and happy by consuming ample amounts of vitamin C and flavanoids. The best sources for both include citrus fruits, blueberries, blackberries and cherries — all antioxidant-rich, high-fiber foods you should be eating anyway.
Vitamin E (almonds are a good source) also maintains your cartilage and helps support its repair, Jamieson-Petonic says. Other key nutrients for cartilage include vitamin A (great sources include milk, carrots, sweet potatoes and spinach), vitamins B5 and B6 (in fortified whole-grain cereals, meat, lobster, nuts and legumes), copper (also in legumes, nuts, leafy green veggies and whole-grain cereals) and zinc (in dairy products, pumpkin seeds and whole-grain cereals).
Hydrated Cells Are Happy Cells
Your body is 60 to 70 percent liquid, and every cell in your body needs water — a lot of it. For a long time, we held to this magic number of eight glasses of water a day. Now we take a more holistic view: You may need more than 64 ounces (especially if you’re very active and losing a lot of fluid through sweat), but you can also get water through high water content fruits and vegetables (all of the same ones that support cartilage and collagen). Water keeps your cells hydrated, so keep that water bottle full and take it with you wherever you go.
Don’t Fan the Flames
It also makes sense to eat foods that fight inflammation in your body, Jamieson-Petonic says. Your joints are highly susceptible to inflammatory foods (like refined sugar and animal fat). But they love foods that fight inflammation. Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, tuna, walnuts and flaxseed) are anti-inflammatory heroes, and they should be a mainstay of any healthy diet.
Think Before You Munch
Losing weight is the number one thing you can do for joint health. “A 10-pound weight loss causes 30 to 50 pounds of extra stress to be relieved from the joints,” Jamieson-Petonic says. A diet high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans) and low in saturated fat is your ticket to satiety through healthier eating.
You practice mindfulness when stretching, and taking a holistic view of eating for flexibility and healthier joints means practicing that same mindfulness at the dinner table. In the same way you consciously breathe and pay attention to your body when you stretch, you can consciously pay attention to the experience you’re having when you eat. Mindful eating means eating more slowly, letting yourself fully taste your food, reflecting on the food choices you’re making (and if it’s what your body really wants) and learning your body’s hunger and fullness cues. “Being mindful is always important, and if you eat mindfully, as well as stretch mindfully, you will begin to improve flexibility,” Jamieson-Petonic says.
Try This! Start your day with a nutrient-rich cartilage-building breakfast: a serving of whole-grain cereal with nonfat milk, topped with blueberries or blackberries, and a handful of almonds. The vitamin C and E will help build collagen, and the fiber and lean protein will fill you up — and help you get a great start to your day!