Edited and Updated by Sandra Gentleman, RD
Written by Samantha Holmgren, RD (guest on podcast and blog contributor)
Arthritis Best Foods
A question that often gets asked is, “What are the best foods for arthritis?” These foods can help you balance the inflammation in your body, reduce health risks, and, best of all, help you feel better.
However, there is one caveat.
There is no food so wonderful that it will permanently grant health and there is no food so terrible that it will permanently ruin your health — unless you have an anaphylactic reaction or get the worst food poisoning ever. That sort of black-and-white thinking gets in the way of making real changes that can help you feel better.
Focus on making small changes that shift you towards a more balanced lifestyle that feeds your wellness. One place to start is to include the following foods in your diet.
1. Fatty Fish for those omega-3 fats
Diets that include fatty fish, like salmon, trout or herring, have been associated with positive health outcomes. In addition to reducing risk and helping manage heart disease, cholesterol, diabetes and other metabolic conditions, diets that include fatty fish can also help with arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis.
Omega-3 supplements can also help people with arthritis feel better and have less pain. In one review, people who took omega-3 supplements were able to reduce the amount of NSAIDs (medications such as Advil or Aleve).
Omega-3 fats help by balancing the inflammation in our body. While inflammation is a necessary part of our immune system, chronic inflammation is detrimental. Omega-3 fats are used to make compounds that help to balance and calm the inflammatory processes.
When we talk about omega-3s fats, we also need to talk about omega-6 fats. Some amount is necessary; just like inflammation is necessary. However, most of us are eating far more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats, creating an imbalance in our body. Therefore, while you are increasing your intake of fish and seeds like flax or chia, try to reduce fat intake from soybean, sunflower, safflower, and hydrogenated (or processed) fats.
Another type of healthy fat is…
2. Olive oil
This is a popular ‘healthy fat’ and for good reason. One study was a meta-analysis that looked at the effects of olive oil on inflammatory markers. This study was particularly concerned with the heart health impacts of inflammation; however, that is also relevant to arthritis because, particularly with inflammatory arthritis, you have a higher risk of heart disease due to the inflammation. Six of the studies included in that meta-analysis compared olive oil and omega-3s. They had a very similar anti-inflammatory effect, with olive oil actually having a slight edge. In real life, you don’t have to choose between them, but it goes to show just how powerful olive oil is.
Replacing some of those sources of omega-6 oils with olive oil will help your body get into a better balance, as well as providing antioxidant and antinflammatory benefits directly.
You may also find it interesting to know that the same compounds in olive oil that are anti-inflammatory in our bodies are also a great food source for the bacteria in our intestines. So olive oil is also a prebiotic and therefore good for our gut.
3. Colourful Fruits & Veggies
The same compounds that give fruits and vegetables their color are also antioxidants. In popular media, antioxidants tend to be associated with anti-aging, but they are also relevant when it comes to inflammation. Oxidative stress happens when your body has an imbalance of pro-oxidants and antioxidants and oxidative stress triggers inflammation, so having a diet filled with antioxidants from colourful fruits and veggies, as well as olive oil offers your health a huge benefit.
However, I don’t recommend going out and taking a supplement purely because it is an ‘antioxidant.’ If you include too many antioxidants, it is still an imbalance and therefore causes oxidative stress. However, that’s not an issue when it comes to eating food. So focus on adding colourful fruits and veggies to your plate.
4. Less processed food
Processing exists on a spectrum, and some processing is super helpful and healthy. Think of frozen vegetables: Depending on where you live and the time of year, the frozen vegetables are often less expensive and therefore more accessible and it can actually be fresher than the “fresh” vegetables. Frozen food stays stable and doesn’t mold or wilt.
Pulling a carrot out of the ground and knocking the dirt off gives you an unprocessed food. Nothing has been done to it.
Chopping that carrot up and cooking it is a form of processing.
Grinding wheat down into a flour is a form of processing.
Combining ingredients to make a homemade soup is a form of processing.
The far end of the spectrum includes highly processed foods created in a factory from ingredients that are extracted from food but that aren’t food on their own. Again, this can be a net positive in some cases. Vitamin and mineral supplementation or enrichment is a significant form of processing but it can have significant health impacts, such as when we started adding iodine to table salt or folic acid to wheat flour, these both improved public health, and were only possible due to processing.
However… processed food also frequently strips out fibre, vitamins, and minerals. It adds ingredients that some people are sensitive to or that may disrupt the intestinal microflora. Science Vs actually did a great podcast episode on processed food that also digs into this.
But it’s a significant grey area. The old adage about ‘everything in moderation’ line is applicable here. Including some processed foods is perfectly fine, but a lot isn’t good for you nor does it feel good.
Bottom line on processing is:
- Eat fewer foods that are highly processed
- Eat foods that are less processed more often (i.e. more on the pluck a veggie out of the garden end of the spectrum)
5. The Mediterranean Diet
The go-to anti-inflammatory diet is the Mediterranean Diet. It combines everything I mentioned above: the fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fish. It also emphasizes cooking at home (less processed foods). And it has been heavily studied in many different contexts so there is a lot of evidence to support following this diet. Even if it doesn’t have a major impact on your day-to-day arthritis pain, it is still helping you.
People with inflammatory health conditions, including most types of arthritis, are at an increased risk of heart disease because of the inflammation. So eating in alignment with the Mediterranean Diet can help counter that risk and improve your overall health.
The Mediterranean Diet tidily answers the question of “what.” However, the other part of the equation is the “how” of eating.
6. Mindful Eating
Mindful eating is a key part of the equation. I have been a dietitian for over decade now, and I’ve seen over and over again how powerful mindful eating can be for people. It helps to break through a lot of the mental barriers we can put up around food, the disordered eating habits that we absorb living in the diet and weight obsessed culture we live in.
It also helps you reconnect with your body signals. It is so tempting to try to ignore your body when you have chronic pain and fatigue. And there are times when you just have to push through the pain and do the thing anyway because if you waited until you felt good you’d never do anything because you have chronic pain. However, those body signals are giving you information. Being able to take that information into account in your planning and how you move through the world can help you feel better in the long run.
Samantha is a registered dietitian who lives with psoriatic arthritis. She focuses on moving towards balance and wellness while living with chronic pain and fatigue. At the heart of her work is a focus on mindfulness and making small changes that have outsized impacts — the Bare Minimum Health Plan.
Samantha is passionate about helping people reconnect to their body through experiencing the pleasure and joy of eating. She loves seeing people move towards balance and wellness intuitively as they reconnect with their body wisdom.