A few weeks ago, I wrote an article examining the ideas of surrender and resistance in relation to rheumatoid arthritis, but I left out one particularly strong and stubborn aversion of mine. When I was diagnosed, I knew that having RA meant a lot of my life would change, but altering my diet in response to my RA was one area where I dug my heels in deep and refused to budge. I was not going to give up my food-related indulgences, even if RA brought an increased risk of heart disease with it.
I stumbled across this less than rosy fact the day after I got my diagnosis. Sitting in my kitchen, I already felt so overwhelmed with everything happening to me that I didn’t feel like I could deal with this potential complication, too, especially since it wasn’t as immediate as the pain that was interfering with my ability to walk. It felt like RA was taking away so much, and the risk of heart disease felt far enough away that I decided to draw a line in the sand when it came to what I ate. After all, I’m a girl who loves a good burger. With bacon. And cheese. And fries on the side. With mayo. And a glass of red wine.
You get the picture. Now, I certainly don’t eat like that all the time, but food is something I truly enjoy and love to celebrate. Trouble is, I’m very good at finding reasons to celebrate, and over the last year, a lot of the weight I worked so hard to take off two years ago has crept back on, and then some. This time, I don’t have an RA-related metabolism crash to blame, just myself and my love of all things cheese-related.
So, after much ignoring and excusing and putting off, I have surrendered to the fact that it is once again time to get back in shape. This time, however, it’s not just about eating less and trimming down. I feel like I’m finally ready to confront some of RA’s future implications on my body, so I’ve been giving a lot more thought to how my diet impacts my heart- and my rheumatoid arthritis. We all know that eating lots of vegetables and fruit is good for you, but more and more, studies are coming out touting the benefits of a largely plant-based diet on our bodies. Many vegetables out there have also been to shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. The new government dietary guidelines also put vegetables, fruit, whole grains and low-fat proteins front and center. Sadly, my much beloved bacon cheeseburgers don’t fall into the ‘heart-healthy’ category.
Now, I’m not ready to go vegan. Or even completely vegetarian, but I am challenging myself to make some real changes, like eating a lot less meat, particularly red meat, and trying new healthy foods like quinoa. I’m substituting my nightly glass of wine with tea and letting my indulgences truly be indulgences, not daily occurrences.
As the dietary guidelines point out, diet is only one part of the story. Exercise is equally important. Depending on the physical limitations RA has dealt on any given day, physical activity can be challenging for many of us, but I’m trying to push myself when I can and take advantage of the fact that my RA is well managed at the moment. I’ve joined a gym for the first time ever- it has a pool, and swimming and water aerobics are a great way to get exercise with very little stress on the joints. I’m still practicing yoga and meditating, but now I can add in some other aerobic activity to the mix to get my heart pumping.
None of us can know what the future holds, and RA can be an unpredictable little beast of a disease. The medications and treatment options that are available now may end up being game-changers in many ways, including changing the risk of heart disease later in life. Regardless, making some smarter choices and including foods that give our hearts and our overall health a boost is something that’s good for all of us, and something we can do now.
Sara is the author of The Single Gal's Guide to Rheumatoid Arthritis.