The Best (and Worst) Foods for Fighting RA
Remember the old saying, “You are what you eat?” If you’ve got rheumatoid arthritis (RA), your daily diet really does play a big role in how you feel. That’s because RA is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation throughout the body, most obviously in the lining of your joints, and certain foods can trigger, worsen, or help reduce this inflammation. Read on to learn which foods tend to be the best—and worst—for RA symptoms. And while diet fixes alone likely won’t replace your medications, they can be a powerful way to combat or prevent an RA flare.
Get Hooked on Fish
It’s no secret that eating fish is a healthy choice. For anyone with RA, eating fatty fish is especially smart. “Data suggest an essential ingredient in fish, omega-3, may decrease the signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis,” says Orrin Troum, M.D., clinical professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California in Los Angeles. To get the most omega-3s, choose salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel —the Arthritis Foundation recommends eating a 3- to 6-ounce serving of these fish two to four times a week to lower inflammation and protect your heart.
Fill Up on Fiber
Fiber-rich foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, almonds, legumes, and whole grains can help reduce inflammation in the body. According to the Arthritis Foundation, research shows that a diet high in fiber can help lower levels of a protein called CRP—a known marker for inflammation—in the body. So, go ahead and fill your grocery cart with whole fruits like apples and oranges instead of juice, reach for almonds as your go-to snack, and check labels for fiber content. Experts recommend men under age 50 get 38 grams each day; women need at least 25 grams daily.
Reach for the Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
While nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and aspirin) are known to help with inflammation, a mainstay ingredient beloved by top chefs and amateur foodies alike works wonders, too. According to a study in Nutrients, extra-virgin olive oil has been shown to block inflammation in similar ways to those standard OTC medications. The cooking staple contains a compound called oleocanthal, which reduces inflammation by blocking the enzymes that trigger it. So, swap out butter for EVOO, wherever you can.
Mince Some More Garlic
A common joke among garlic lovers is that you should always double—triple?—the quantity in any recipe. If you have RA, that’s not such a bad idea. Garlic has been found to include a compound called thiacremonone, which may reduce inflammatory markers in people with RA. Garlic may also suppress the creation of cytokines, an inflammatory protein, thus boosting your immune system while reducing the onset of arthritic joints and swelling. One study suggests that heating garlic undercuts its anti-inflammatory effects. Try stirring raw minced or grated garlic into dishes raw.
Get a Taste for Turmeric
This versatile, bright yellow spice is a delicious addition to your cooking and beneficial for people with RA, thanks to turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin. This anti-inflammatory antioxidant has been shown to safely reduce inflammation and pain, making it a super spice of sorts. Tumeric is common in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes, and you can also use it to flavor fish, eggs, soups, and smoothies.
Brew a Pot of Green Tea
If you need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, consider choosing green tea. The drink contains an antioxidant known as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which may block molecules that have been known to cause joint damage. More argument for tea? It also has polyphenols, a class of chemicals which are anti-inflammatory. To get the most polyphenols in your cup, steep tea for 5 minutes.
Grab a Handful of Berries
Strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, as well as pomegranates, are among the commonly available fruits that may offer some protection against arthritis, according to a 2018 review of research published in Food and Function. These nutrition powerhouses contain polyphenols, the same anti-inflammatory class of chemicals found in the tea. Pop fresh berries straight from the fridge or top yogurt and oatmeal with frozen varieties.
Stick With Whole Fruits
While eating whole fruit may lower your risk for RA, drinking fruit juice may have the opposite effect. A 2016 study found that fruit juice is associated with a higher risk for RA in people 20 to 30, regardless of their other lifestyle habits. Young adults who drank more than five fructose-sweetened juices, including apple juice and fruit drinks, were three times as likely to have arthritis compared to people who drank little to no juice.
Can people with RA safely imbibe bubbly or down a beer? The research is mixed. Some studies suggest that, yes, you can enjoy a drink occasionally, as you long as you do so with your doctor’s OK—alcohol may interact with your medications—and in moderation. While one study suggests people with RA may experience negative effects from boozing (reduction of immune functionality and disruption of sleep), another indicates the severity of RA symptoms may decrease among women who drink beer a few times a week. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.
Skip Processed and Fried Foods
Processed foods may contain trans fat, despite the FDA working to phase out this inflammatory ingredient from the food supply by 2021. To avoid trans fat, always check food labels, and don’t buy anything with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Linda Lee, M.D., a rheumatologist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, NJ, says that people with RA often report feeling better after skipping fried foods, frozen meals, and sugary drinks, too. Research shows that when people remove such unhealthy fare from their diets, the body restores its natural defenses—and inflammation goes down.
Say So Long to Saturated Fats
Some studies suggest a connection between saturated fats and the chronic inflammation that can worsen RA symptoms. Foods high in saturated fats include most cheeses, red meat, full-fat dairy foods, and poultry skin. You don’t have to outright reject your favorite indulgences—just make them occasional treats rather than part of your regular rotation. Dr. Troum adds that cutting back on such unhealthy fats may also help keep your weight in check, which in turn may better control your RA. “As fat cells increase in size, there’s an increase in the production of inflammatory cytokines that can aggravate rheumatoid arthritis.”
Sack Refined Sugar
Dr. Lee recommends limiting sugar intake—she’s seen this one dietary change make a real difference in the lives of many of her RA patients. According to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, refined sugars—often added to processed foods like ketchup, desserts, and sweetened drinks—release cytokines into the body. These cytokines act as inflammatory agents, potentially aggravating RA symptoms. Keep calories from added sugars to about 10% of your diet, max. Drink water with meals, avoid sugary cereals, and enjoy high-fiber berries to tame your sweet tooth.
RA and Fish: Arthritis Foundation. (2019). “Best Fish for Arthritis.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/healthy-eating/best-fish-for-arthritis
RA and Oil: Arthritis Foundation. (2019.) “Best Oils for Arthritis.” arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/healthy-eating/best-oils-for-arthritis
Olive Oil and Inflammation: Nutrients. (2017). “Effects of Olive Oil Phenolic Compounds on Inflammation in the Prevention and Treatment of Coronary Heart Disease.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5691704/#B122-nutrients-09-01087
RA and Fiber: European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. (2009.) “The Effects of Dietary Fibre on C-reactive Protein” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19223918
The National Academies' Institute of Medicine. (2002). ”Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids.” nationalacademies.org/hmd/reports/2002/dietary-reference-intakes-for-energy-carbohydrate-fiber-fat-fatty-acids-cholesterol-protein-and-amino-acids.aspx
RA and Garlic: Journal of Immunology Research (2015). “Immunomodulation and Anti-inflammatory Effects of Garlic Compounds.” hindawi.com/journals/jir/2015/401630/
Food and Chemical Toxicology: (2013). “Short-term heating reduces the anti-inflammatory effects of fresh raw garlic extracts on the LPS-induced production of NO and pro-inflammatory cytokines by downregulating allicin activity in RAW 264.7 macrophages” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0278691513002287
RA and Turmeric: Journal of Medicinal Food. (2016) “Efficacy of Turmeric Extracts and Curcumin for Alleviating the Symptoms of Joint Arthritis ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5003001/
RA and Green Tea: Arthritis Research and Therapy. (2010). “Green tea polyphenol epigallocatechin 3-gallate in arthritis: progress and promise.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2888220/
RA and Polyphenols: Molecules. (2019). “Could Polyphenols Help in the Control of Rheumatoid Arthritis” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6515230/
RA and Berries: Food and Function. (2018) “Dietary fruits and arthritis.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5788027/
RA and Fruit Juice: Nutrition & Diabetes. (2016). “Intake of high-fructose corn syrup sweetened soft drinks, fruit drinks and apple juice is associated with prevalent arthritis in US adults, aged 20-30 years.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4817078/?report=reader
RA and Alcohol: Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology (2018) “Moderate Alcohol Consumption Is Associated With Increased Radiological Progression In Women, But Not In Men” tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03009742.2018.1437216
RA and Processed/Fried Foods: Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism. (2009). “Protection Against Loss of Innate Defenses in Adulthood by Low Advanced Glycation End Products (AGE) Intake: Role of the Antiinflammatory AGE Receptor-1.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2775660/#__ffn_sectitle
RA and Saturated Fats: Advances in Nutrition. (2015). “The Science of Fatty Acids and Inflammation.” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4424767/#__ffn_sectitle
Cell Reports. (2016). “Saturated Fatty Acids Engage in IRE1a-Dependent Pathway to Activate the NLRP3 Inflammasome in Myeloid Cells.” cell.com/cell-reports/fulltext/S2211-1247(16)30174-7
RA and Sugar: The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2014) “Sugar-Sweetened Soda Consumption and Risk of Developing Rheumatoid Arthritis In Women” academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/100/3/959/4576594
The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for America—Cut Down on Added Sugars. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/DGA_Cut-Down-On-Added-Sugars.pdf