Can changing my diet really affect my osteoarthritis?
Absolutely – well, maybe. A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet has been shown to have a multitude of benefits for your body. In fact, if you wanted to do the three best things for your body’s health and vitality you would probably:
(1) stop smoking,
(2) start an appropriate exercise program and
(3) eat a healthy anti-inflammatory diet
As far as whether a healthy anti-inflammatory diet alone will reduce your osteoarthritis symptoms, the data are lacking. Studies need to be done to look at this question. It makes sense, though, that it should. The pain associated with osteoarthritis is largely an inflammatory issue. An anti-inflammatory diet in theory, therefore, should help.
One way it will definitely be useful is if you are overweight and this diet helps you lose weight. Consider that overweight men are five times more likely, and overweight women are four times more likely, to develop arthritis than their thinner counterparts. Women who lose as little as 11 pounds reduce their risk of knee arthritis by more than 50%! Clearly, if you are overweight, a strategy to lose the weight, and keep it off, should greatly help your osteoarthritis symptoms.
The good news - nay, the great news – about eating a healthy anti-inflammatory diet is that even if it doesn’t directly impact your joints right away, it will be a large leap towards making you an overall healthier person than if you were to eat a standard, “western” diet of saturated fats, carbohydrates, and processed foods.
What is a healthy anti-inflammatory diet?
I offer 5 nutrition basics:
(1) Drink plenty of fluids. Believe it or not, thirst is not a good predictor of hydration status. By the time that you feel thirsty, you are probably already somewhat dehydrated. Most people probably spend a good portion of their life mildly dehydrated. The American Heart Association recommends drinking 6 to 8 glasses of water per day (that’s 8 ounces per glass, for a maximum of 64 ounces per day). People with arthritis may need somewhat more, especially because you’re going to be more active than the average person, right? What should you drink? Pure water is the best, but sports drinks are also reasonable (just avoid the sugary ones). Fruit juices are good sources of water and vitamins but they have more calories.
Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages, on the other hand, have a diuretic effect (they make you urinate and drive water out of the body) and so are counterproductive to drinking more fluids and staying hydrated.
(2) Eat more fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society both recommend that you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Research tends to suggest that the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the better. One large study (the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals’ Follow-up Study) found that people who consumed eight or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day were 30%less likely to have a heart attack or stroke than were those who consumed 1.5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. As a general rule, I recommend eating 7 to12 servings each day. A “serving” is a about the amount of fruit or vegetable that can fit in the palm of your hand. Eat as many different colored fruits and vegetables as you can. While the dark colored ones tend to have more anti-oxidants, variety is important!
(3) Eat more small, cold-water fish. The reason to eat small cold-water fish is because they contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids fight inflammation in the body, and they make the walls of the body’s cells more pliable, which is important. The more flexible the cell wall, the better the cell can communicate with other cells and allow important proteins and nutrients to pass through its membranous surface. The reason to eat small cold water fish is because the small fish have less mercury (which is toxic) than the large fish. Fish with low mercury content include trout, tuna and salmon. Shark and swordfish, by contrast, have very high mercury contents. If you are pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor about how much fish is safe for you to eat because even a small amount of mercury may be toxic to a developing fetus.
(4) Eat red meat sparingly. While fish have many anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, red meat, sadly, has lots of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Red meat and processed meats have been linked to a variety of cancers. The strongest link appears to be with colorectal cancer. A maximum of 6 ounces of red meat per week is recommended.
(5) Eat fewer processed foods. The processed foods that are best to avoid are the sugary ones. These include candies, chocolates and ice cream. Avoid the salty potato chips and foods loaded with saturated fats, too. Cutting down on these foods doesn’t have to be a “sacrifice.” Fruits and vegetables make a wonderful substitute for candies. And once you’ve successfully made the switch, you’ll start feeling better and likely have more energy as a bonus!