How what you eat affects arthritis

Knowing which foods promote inflammation and which ones suppress it can help you manage arthritis symptoms.

Andy De Santis, RD 4 minute read November 23, 2020
Diet and arthritis

What you eat can impact how you feel when it comes to arthritis symptoms. Getty

According to recent data published by the Arthritis Society, about one in five Canadians are living with one of a collection of inflammatory conditions we have come to know as arthritis.

Characterized generally by swelling in joints, arthritis leads to pain and stiffness in these areas and increases in severity as we age. People who live arthritis often experience a decrease in quality of life because of the lack of mobility and mental health affects of living with a chronically painful condition.

The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. According to the Mayo Clinic, osteoarthritis causes cartilage — the hard, slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones where they form a joint — to break down, while rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which the immune system attacks the joints, beginning with the lining of joints.

While there are many medications available to control both the symptoms of arthritis as well as the disease itself, there are also many complementary strategies to manage the disease, an important part of which is making healthy food choices.

Eating for arthritis

“A diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables with whole grains, healthy fats and lean animal or plant protein is generally healthier for everyone, but there is evidence the DASH and Mediterranean diets are beneficial for people living with rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic conditions,” says Dr. Siân Bevan, Chief Science Officer at the Arthritis Society. “People who choose these kinds of diets tend to avoid foods that promote inflammation and eat more foods that can help suppress inflammation.”

What foods suppress inflammation?

“Certain foods have been shown to promote inflammation while others can suppress it, for example antioxidants in vegetables and monounsaturated fats in nuts both fight inflammation,” she says.

Since arthritis is an inflammatory condition, much of the research surrounding nutrition in arthritis management focuses on food components which might be considered anti-inflammatory — very much a buzz word in the world of nutrition. A 2017 paper published in the Frontiers of Nutrition identified certain fruits, legumes, whole grains and spices as generating some interest as a way of managing rheumatoid arthritis.

In the case of osteoarthritis, consuming omega-3 fatty acids — found in salmon, sardines, trout, flax, chia, hemp and walnuts — has been shown to be beneficial. And since people living with osteoarthritis may also be more likely to have elevated blood cholesterol, certain cholesterol lowering foods such as soy-based foods, nuts, broccoli, sweet potatoes and oatmeal are good choices.

Focus on plants

In both OA and RA, there are studies suggesting that trending towards a more plant-focused diet may contribute to symptom and inflammation reduction.

Although more research is required, the Mediterranean diet is a very reasonable framework to use to begin leaning towards incorporating more whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes without having to omit the traditional protein sources that many Canadians enjoy.

Foods to avoid if you have arthritis

Although there are no foods to be strictly avoided if you are living with arthritis, there are certainly some which you might want to have only in moderation. These include alcohol, refined carbohydrates made with white flour, foods high in saturated fat like certain higher fat dairy and red meat products as well as processed red meats like salami, sausages and hot dogs.

And while it’s good to be aware of what’s not good for you in managing arthritis, I always tell my clients to focus on spending their energy on what foods to include in their diet, rather what to avoid.

If you or someone you care about is living with arthritis, connecting with a support network can help to not only learn ways to better manage health, but also share experiences with others. Some Canadian resources include the Arthritis Society and the Arthritis Alliance of Canada.

Andy is a registered dietitian and author who has operated a private practice in Toronto since 2015. He spends his free time eating, writing and talking about kale @AndyTheRD. He can be reached at

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