The hallmarks of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are joint pain, stiffness, and inflammation, so it makes sense to live your life with a focus on trying to limit these symptoms. If you have obesity, then losing weight can reduce the pressure on inflamed, painful joints.
Weight-reduction requires a commitment to managing calories and increasing physical activity. In addition to fighting inflammation, you also want to keep bones strong and support immune health, since RA is considered an autoimmune disease. A diet that addresses weight loss and RA needs, should include food choices that limit inflammation, build bone and support immune health. Here are foods you can enjoy and foods to avoid or limit on your path to better health with RA.
There’s no clear “RA Diet” but these are the foods and drinks that are considered best choices:
- Include several servings a week of oily, omega 3-rich fish like salmon, mackerel and herring.
- If you don’t like fish, soy can offer a boost of omega-3 fatty acid, but focus on unprocessed options like soy beans, fortified soymilk, and tofu.
- Extra virgin olive oil is a heart-healthy oil containing oleocanthal which has actions similar to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Walnut oil is one of the top sources of omega-3s.
- Low-fat dairy products and some fortified soymilks have calcium and Vitamin D, which support bone health.
- Go for green vegetables like broccoli — also rich in calcium and fiber.
- Green tea (unsweetened) is rich in polyphenols — antioxidants credited with reducing inflammation. It’s also rich in ECGC, a compound which may block the production of molecules that cause joint damage. Add lemon, which helps the body to absorb more catechins — inflammation fighting antioxidants.
- Citrus fruits (grapefruit, oranges, limes) are rich in vitamin C and other antioxidants that support healthy joints.
- Whole grains (oatmeal, brown rice, whole grain cereals and bread) can help to lower levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, a biomarker of inflammation.
- Fiber-rich foods like beans help to lower C-reactive protein and are brimming with folic acid, magnesium, iron, zinc and potassium which all help to support immune health.
- Many varieties of (unprocessed) nuts contain fiber and immune-boosting alpha linoleic acid (ALA) — an immune booster.
- Fermented foods contain probiotics that can also help to support healthy gut-microbe balance and immune health.
- Coffee has antioxidant polyphenols but the jury is still on the fence as to whether it’s good or bad for RA. A rule of thumb is to drink in moderation (one to two cups daily) and avoid sweeteners and full-fat milk or creamers.
- Red wine has resveratrol, well-established as an anti-inflammatory agent. In moderation (one drink a day maximum for women, two for men) is all right.
- Water should be your go-to beverage since it helps to flush toxins out of your body. A water habit also keeps joints lubricated and limits inflammation.
Foods to avoid include:
- Sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Saturated fats — full-fat dairy and meat products
- Trans fats — usually found in highly processed foods
- Omega-6 fatty acids — found in corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, peanut, soy and vegetable oils, mayonnaise, and many salad dressings.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) — a flavor enhancer often found in prepared Asian foods, soups and soup mixes, deli meats, and salad dressings
- Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame) — though more research is needed, one theory is that these artificial sweeteners may affect immune function.
The following menu plan focuses on the foods just mentioned that support joint, bone, and immune health. Where salad is mentioned, the goal is to include at least five different vegetables. Remember to consider portion sizes and calories per serving if one of the goals is weight loss.
- One: Greek yogurt, blueberries, with a topping of bran cereal and chopped walnuts; coffee with fat-free milk
- Two: One egg plus one egg white scrambled (use olive oil spray) with chopped broccoli, small slice of whole grain toast, green tea with lemon
- Three: Steel cut oats (oatmeal) with soymilk and a sprinkle of nuts, an orange and coffee with fat-free milk
- Four: Whole-grain English muffin with nut butter, thin banana slices and a fat-free latte
- Five: Whole grain/high fiber cereal with apples and cranberries, topped with chopped nuts and fat-free milk; green tea with lemon
- Six: Whole-grain flatbread (100 calories) with melted part skim mozzarella cheese and mixed sautéed veggies, half a grapefruit and coffee with fat-free milk
- Seven: Half a small cantaloupe filled with fat-free low-sodium cottage cheese, topped with nuts and berries; green tea with lemon
- One: A can of sardines (you can find “packed-in-water/low-sodium” options), large salad, serving of baked whole grain crackers and sparkling water
- Two: A can of wild tuna packed in water over zoodles (zucchini noodles) and mixed vegetables (add seaweed), half a whole-grain pita and a latte
- Three: A whole-grain tortilla (100 calories) with salsa and avocado, beans and shredded vegetables, an orange and sparkling water
- Four: Egg-white omelet with chopped broccoli and mushrooms, tomato slices and an apple; latte
- Five: Lightly grilled Portobello mushroom topped with grilled vegetables on a bed of high-protein pasta, orange; green tea with lemon
- Six: Grilled mackerel on a bed of salad greens (add seaweed) with baked whole-grain crackers, cup of berries; sparkling water
- Seven: Tofu stir fry with vegetables served on brown rice, orange: coffee with fat-free milk
- One: Grilled or baked salmon, brown rice, broccoli; small glass of wine and sparkling water.
- Two: Homemade bean soup with cubes of tofu or boneless white-meat chicken, small serving of quinoa and dinner salad and berries.
- Three: High-protein pasta mixed with zucchini “zoodles,” tomato sauce, two fried eggs on top, and dinner salad; small glass of wine.
- Four: Salmon burger on whole-grain English muffin, large salad; apple.
- Five: Mediterranean chicken salad with a small whole-grain pita; small glass of wine.
- Six: Homemade bean chili on a small bed of brown rice, steamed broccoli and carrots; cup of mixed berries and banana slices.
- Seven: Baked fish topped with crushed pecans with half a small sweet potato and sautéed vegetables, small glass of wine.
Lunches and dinners can be swapped out. Consider using rubs for fish or chicken dishes for a boost of flavor sans extra calories.
If you don’t drink wine, then experts don’t necessarily recommend starting. But if you enjoy wine, then consider consuming alcohol with the guidelines provided.
You will notice no mention of nightshade plants being forbidden because there is no clear science to suggest that tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and peppers are bad for arthritis. If you choose to leave these off, there is a host of other fruits and vegetables to choose from.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”