What to Eat and Avoid with Rheumatoid Arthritis

by Lene Andersen, MSW Patient Advocate

At present, researchers have not found evidence to suggest that diet can effectively control rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, studies have shown that certain types of food may affect levels of inflammation. Knowing which types of foods can help and which can cause you to flare can be helpful in managing your symptoms.

Go fishin'

Omega-3 fatty acids can be helpful for arthritis and other conditions. Fish is very rich in this. Eat a minimum of two meals a week consisting of fish and shellfish. Certain types of fish are especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, herring, tuna, trout, and mackerel. You can also incorporate fish oil into your treatment.

Soy joy

Although fish contains the largest doses of omega-3 fatty acids, they can also be found in other foods. These includes soy, both edamame and soy products such as tofu, soy milk, and soy yogurt. Nuts and seeds can also be rich sources of omega-3, especially walnuts.

Protecting your bones

Making your bones as strong as possible can help you live better with RA. The disease puts you at higher risk for developing osteoporosis, so make sure to add calcium-rich foods, such as milk and other dairy products, dark leafy vegetables, and foods fortified with vitamin D and calcium.

Fiber isn’t just good for your bowels

We all know that fiber is the way to go to maintain our bowel health, but did you know it can also affect your levels of inflammation? Incorporate plenty of fiber-rich foods in your diet, such as whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Bonus: a diet with plenty of fiber may also help you lose weight!

Use the right kind of oil

RA inflammation can affect your heart. Don’t eat saturated and trans fats that can increase LDL (bad cholesterol). Choose heart-healthy fats: extra virgin olive, walnut, and flax oils. They contain omega-3 fatty acids and may have other benefits. For instance, extra-virgin olive oil has oleacanthal, which blocks inflammation the same way as NSAIDs.


Polyphenols are compounds found in plants that are a type of antioxidant that may reduce inflammation. Used over time, they can also offer protection against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Add more green tea, dark chocolate, and pomegranate juice to your diet to get more polyphenols.

Gluten — yes or no?

Gluten-free diets are fashionable at the moment, but do they help? That depends on the origin of your symptoms. People with celiac disease may have joint inflammation and pain and such individuals cannot eat gluten. Some people with RA respond to gluten free diets, but many do not. As well, there are essential nutrients in whole grains.

Alcohol and RA

Used in moderation, alcohol may actually prevent RA from developing and can reduce inflammation. Red wine, for instance, contains resveratrol, which may have anti-inflammatory properties. However, drinking alcohol when you take RA meds may not be a good idea. Depending on the medication, your doctor may recommend that you don’t drink at all.

Processed foods

Whenever possible, avoid processed foods when you have RA. Snacks like chips and cookies can be high in unhealthy fats and sugar. Pre-made meals may also contain unhealthy fats and high levels of sodium, which can increase your blood pressure. If you choose ready-made meals, look for low-sodium options and add fresh or frozen vegetables.

Nightshades: myth or fact?

Many people with RA report that the nightshade family (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant) cause an increase in symptoms. As of yet, there is no evidence to support this. In fact, one study showed that potatoes may lower inflammation. If you feel your RA responds to nightshade foods, make sure you get those types of nutrients elsewhere.

Cut down on sugar

Sugar is commonly believed to trigger RA symptoms, although research has not yet confirmed this. Cutting your intake of sugar can help you eliminate refined products in your diet, as well as lose weight, and that can definitely help you function better. Use sugar alternatives such as honey, agave, maple syrup, or calorie-free sweeteners.

Maybe meatless?

There is a possible link between the consumption of red meat and the development of inflammatory arthritis. Some evidence suggests that a vegan or vegetarian diet may be helpful in controlling symptoms. Both claims require more research. Bottom line appears to be that eating lean protein can provide important nutrients.

Which foods can help you feel better?

There are many conflicting claims about diet and its influence on RA. Which diet works seems to depend on the individual. If you’re interested in testing different foods, talk to your doctor or dietitian about trying an elimination diet. This may help you find out if certain foods have an impact on your RA symptoms.

Lene  Andersen, MSW
Meet Our Writer
Lene Andersen, MSW

Lene Andersen is an author, health and disability advocate, and photographer living in Toronto. Lene (pronounced Lena) has lived with rheumatoid arthritis since she was four years old and uses her experience to help others with chronic illness. She has written several books, including Your Life with Rheumatoid Arthritis: Tools for Managing Treatment, Side Effects and Pain, and 7 Facets: A Meditation on Pain, as well as the award-winning blog, The Seated View. Lene serves on HealthCentral's Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the RAHealthCentral on Facebook page, facebook.com/rahealthcentral. She is also one of HealthCentral's Live Bold, Live Now heroes — watch her incredible journey of living with RA.