Vegging Out: Vegetarianism and RA

Leslie Rott Health Guide
  • I have been a vegetarian since my senior year in high school.  This was a lifestyle I had been considering for a long time, but my mom worried that I would not be healthy without eating meat. 


    After reading the book, “Fast Food Nation,” by Eric Schlosser, I was able to provide my mom with evidence about what I felt appealing about a vegetarian lifestyle. 


    My choice wasn’t really about a love of animals.  In other words, I’m not one of those militant vegetarians who despises anyone who eats meat.  This is a personal choice I made for myself because I didn’t really like eating meat all that much anyway.

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    I have never really done research on the potential connections between a vegetarian lifestyle and RA.  It seems that cases in which a vegetarian diet is adapted is after a period of fasting or elimination, and is related to ridding oneself of certain foods that seem to exacerbate RA symptoms.  


    (For the remainder of this article, I will use vegetarian and vegan interchangeably, as many articles discuss one or both types of dietary changes.)

    In other words, research focuses on people who are diagnosed with RA and then adapt such a diet, not people who are vegetarian and then develop RA.  As far as diet impacting the onset of RA, little is currently known about this connection (Pattison, et al. 2004).


    When I was trying to get diagnosed, one of the first things that my primary care doctor, at the time, thought I may have was Celiac’s Disease (gluten intolerance).  I completely eliminated gluten from my diet for two weeks.  The first week I felt better, had more energy and less pain. But in the second week, I went back to feeling the way I did pre-gluten elimination, so we were able to eliminate that as a cause of my symptoms. 


    I did this hardcore, eliminating everything, and contacting companies of everyday non-food products that I used that may have contained gluten.


    Looking back, now, in some ways, I wish my primary diagnosis would have been gluten intolerance.  But at the time, I was hungry all the time, and didn’t feel like it was something I wanted to do on a permanent basis, unless I medically needed to.


    I have wondered for awhile if any type of elimination diet would make you feel better, at least temporarily, but I digress.  


    Much of the research that has been done on the subject of vegetarian/veganism and RA has been equivocal, meaning that there hasn’t been a clear-cut conclusion about the utility in dietary changes improving the outcomes of patients with RA (Hagen, et al. 2009).


    One thing that often gets pointed out in treating RA is weight reduction, although some believe that weight reduction is not a sufficient need to adapt a vegetarian/vegan diet in patients with RA (Skoldstam, et al. 2005). 


    Some also suggest that a vegetarian/vegan diet is a significant lifestyle change that many might have a problem adapting to (Rojahn 2011), especially considering such changes are not proven effective. 


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    Other dietary changes related to RA aside from vegetarianism and veganism are diets that low in fat, fasting,  the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits and vegetables and low in red meat, an elimination diet, which eliminates foods that trigger RA symptoms, and an elemental diet, which relies on artificial nutrient supplements  (Li and Micheletti  2011; Stamp, et al.  2006).


    While my vegetarianism came before my diagnosis with RA, by four years, and no one has suggested that it would be a positive lifestyle to deal with my RA, no one has told me it is not good for my RA, either.  So for now, I am sticking to it.  And it would be great to hear about other dietary changes that have been made by those with RA.     


    And while the impact of a vegetarian/vegan diet on reduction of RA symptoms has not been proven, what remains is that dietary changes can be a potential avenue for complementary and alternative therapies in combination with (or in rare cases instead of) the traditional treatments for RA (Kjeldsen-Kragh, et al. 1994; McDougall, et al. 2002).




    Hagen, K., Byfuglien, M., Falzon, L., Olsen, S., and Smedslund, G. 2009. “Dietary Interventions for Rheumatoid Arthritis.” Cochrane Database Systematic Review 21 (1): np.


    Kjeldsen-Kragh, J., Haugen, M., Borchgrevink, C.F., and Forre, O. 1994. “Vegetarian Diet for Patients with Rheumatoid Arthritis – Status Two Years After Introduction of the Diet.” Clinical Rheumatology 13 (3): 475-482.


    Li, S., and Micheletti, R. 2011. “Role of Diet in Rheumatic Disease.” Rheumatic Disease Clinic of North America 37 (1): 119-133.


    McDougall, J., Bruce, B., Spiller, G., Westerdahl, J., and McDougall, M. 2002. “Effects of a Very Low-Fat, Vegan Diet in Subjects with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 8 (1): 71-75.


    Pattison, D.J., Harrison, R.A., and Symmons, D.P. 2004. “The Role of Diet in Susceptibility to Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Systematic Review.” Journal of Rheumatology 31 (7): 1310-1319.


    Rojahn, Ruth. 2011. “Dietary Interventions for Rheumatoid Arthritis.” American Journal of Nursing 111 (3): 69.


    Skoldstam, L., Brudin, L., Hagfors, L., and Johansson, G. 2005. “Weight Reduction is Not a Major Reason for Improvement in Rheumatoid Arthritis from Lacto-Vegetarian, Vegan or Mediterranean Diets.” Nutrition Journal 4 (4): np.


    Stamp, L.K., M.J. James, and L.G. Cleland. “Diet and Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Review of the Literature.” Seminars in Arthritis and Rheumatism 35 (2): 77-94.

Published On: October 21, 2012