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10 foods to avoid if you have arthritis

If you live with arthritis, it can affect everything from your mobility to your sleep quality and overall wellness.

“Arthritis occurs when there’s swelling or inflammation in a joint or tissue,” says Roxana Ehsani, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Worsening pain and/or stiffness may occur if a person with arthritis is consuming pro-inflammatory foods.”

The diet-arthritis connection

“Researchers are still figuring out the role diet plays in creating chronic inflammation in the body resulting in chronic diseases, including arthritis,” says Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “However, studies have shown that high saturated fat foods such as meat and foods with added sugars such as soda may increase inflammation negatively impacting the immune system resulting in inflammatory diseases such as arthritis.”

And what you choose to include or exclude in your diet can directly affect your body weight and health.

“Excess body weight can play a role in worsening arthritis because it can lead to increased stress on the joints,” says Amber Pankonin, a registered dietitian and founder of the food blog The Stirlist. “Weight loss, when combined with moderate activity, has been shown to help improve arthritis symptoms in older adults.”

Unfortunately, pro-inflammatory foods are those that are rich in saturated fat, trans fat, fried foods, foods high in sugar and salt, refined grains and alcohol.

“These foods are also low in overall nutrients and may exacerbate a person’s symptoms,” Ehasani says.

The best diet for arthritis

Although following a healthy diet isn’t the only factor in helping reduce arthritis-induced symptoms, it definitely can help.

“Each person is different, but in general the same healthy eating strategies apply. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, reduce saturated fat intake, and focus on heart-healthy protein and fat sources, as this might help reduce inflammation and maintain healthy body weight,” Pankonin says.

This means those with arthritis should be following an anti-inflammatory diet.

“An anti-inflammatory diet consists of a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and oils, low-fat proteins, fatty fish, beans, nuts and seeds,” Ehsani says. “Spices should also be included because they are a rich source of antioxidants. Many spices, including turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and cayenne, have anti-inflammatory effects.”

You can also choose anti-inflammatory drinks. “Coffee, black tea and ginger tea are also high in antioxidants (minus the sugar and creamer) and can be regularly enjoyed while following an anti-inflammatory diet,” Ehsani says.

Foods to avoid if you have arthritis

If you’re looking to eat a diet that will keep your inflammation and arthritis at bay, here are 10 foods you should avoid.

Soda: “Sugar is a source of empty calories and excess calories in the diet can lead to weight gain, which we know puts excess strain on the joints,” Pankonin says. “Regular soda is a source of added sugars, which when consumed in excess could certainly lead to weight gain.”

Fried foods: “Foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils, aka trans fats, include doughnuts, cookies, crackers, baked goods, pie crusts and stick margarine and may increase inflammation and harm overall health,” Jones says. “Trans fats raise our lousy (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower our good (HDL) cholesterol levels.”

Full-fat dairy: “Foods high in saturated fat are pro-inflammatory. Although full dairy choices such as butter, cheese, creamers, milk, yogurts and ice creams are delicious, they are high in saturated fat, which may increase one’s total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol,” Ehsani says.

She adds that individuals with arthritis are more at risk of developing heart disease, so it’s best to avoid full-fat dairy choices as these can directly increase one’s total and LDL cholesterol. “Instead, opt for your favorite dairy products’ nonfat or low-fat version. The nutrient content will not change (such as the vitamin D or protein in the dairy product) just the fat content will be lowered when choosing lower-fat or nonfat dairy foods. Win-win!”

Alcohol: “Not only is alcohol a source of empty calories, but it could also interfere with medications that people who suffer from arthritis might be taking,” Pankonin says.

Alcohol also doesn’t provide the body with essential nutrients. “Heavy intake of alcohol should be avoided with those with arthritis as alcohol can damage internal organs and doesn’t support a healthy and strong immune system,” Ehsani says. “Alcohol should be consumed in moderation, according to the Dietary Guidelines, the recommendations for men is no more than two drinks a day, and for women no more than one drink a day.”

Frozen meals: “Foods high in salt include frozen meals, canned soup, pizza, certain cheeses, and processed meats,” Jones says. “According to the Arthritis Foundation, people with rheumatoid arthritis may feel the effects of salt even more. Corticosteroids, medications commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, cause the body to hold more sodium. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the average adult limit salt intake to 2300 mg a day, or 1 teaspoon of table salt.”

Processed meats: “Processed meats such as bacon, sausage, deli meats, hot dogs and canned meats are typically high in salt, total fat and even may contain trace amounts of trans fat, which all can cause inflammation,” Ehsani says.

Foods high in saturated fat: “Consistently consuming foods that are high in saturated fat could lead to high cholesterol and could also play a role in worsening arthritis,” Pankonin says. “Some research has suggested that saturated fats combined with refined carbohydrates might impact cartilage health by causing it to weaken.”

White bread and pasta: “Refined flours are found in refined grains such as white bread, white pasta, white rice, sugary cereal; baked goods such as muffins, cookies, cakes; snack foods such as crackers and pretzels. These foods are lower in nutrient value than whole grains,” Ehsani says. “Refined grains are made with enriched or white flour, these flours are stripped of the germ (the healthy fat) and the bran (dietary fiber) along with some vitamins and minerals. People with arthritis should avoid products made with refined flours as they lack these essential nutrients.”

Juice, energy drinks or sweetened coffee beverages: Soda isn’t the only high-sugar beverage out there.

“Sugar can be found in sweetened beverages such as energy drinks, juices, coffee drinks, and sports drinks. Research has indicated that consuming sugary foods and drinks can cause inflammation,” Ehsani says. “One study found elevated inflammatory markers after participants consumed 40 grams of sugar per day. Generally, one can or bottle of soda, sweet tea, sweetened coffee beverage (flavored lattes or Frappuccino) or energy drinks maybe even higher than 40 grams of sugar per serving. So, those with arthritis should limit consumption of sugary drinks and foods.”

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