When I talk about an 'arthritis diet', I am referring to a specialised diet that a dietician or nutritionist has worked out for your specific case of arthritis. There really is no one, elite diet that will apply to all arthritis sufferers, so I will just refer to some common trends in these typical 'arthritis diets'.
In a nutshell, to fight arthritis, the best diet is one that is high in vitamins and minerals with sufficient good quality protein. Your carbohydrate intake should be from low GI sources and limited in fast-releasing sugar. Your fat intake should be low overall, yet consuming unsaturated fatty food is essential in an arthritis diet. Limiting food that you are allergic to, can prevent an inflammatory response by the body. Foods that irritate the digestive tract and hinder detoxification should be avoided. Typically these are foods containing gluten or dairy. To get the best result for your specific case, getting a dietician to work out a plan for your arthritis diet is a good idea.
A good, well-balanced diet is important for general health, but it becomes especially important if you have arthritis. Often people will need increased amounts of certain nutrients when they have arthritis. A healthy diet is strongly linked to a strong immune system. A strong immune system gives you an advantage for fighting any disease, especially inflammatory and auto-immune diseases like arthritis. You can either consume more whole, fresh foods containing these nutrients, or you can use good quality supplements to make up the shortfall. Most of the current research doesn't really make any strong connection between your diet as cause, or as a way of treating arthritis. Many people however, believe that certain foods can ease inflammation and swelling, while others avoid certain foods that may trigger a flare up.
As a general guide, anyone should eat a diet rich in oily fish, low-fat dairy (unless have lactose intolerance), fresh fruit and vegetables. Greasy, fried foods should be avoided as much as possible. Foods containing lots of refined sugar is not healthy and could lead to many health conditions. There are many claims, especially for different sources on the internet about certain foods and arthritis diets that will 'cure' arthritis. There is little evidence of one specific food provoking or calming arthritis symptoms, except when you are allergic to that food type. Mostly these claims are linked to some kind of commercial benefit for the companies involved. It is however true that specific, goal orientated supplementation can hold benefits for arthritis.
The other key aspect is to make your eating habits a part of your daily life. You should budget time and energy to buy the right foods and plan what you are going to eat every day. If we don't plan, it is so easy to resort to fast food or processed foods.
Here are some healthy arthritis diet basics for arthritis sufferers:
Healthy Arthritis Diet 101
The key to a healthy arthritis diet is variety, balance and moderation. A variety of low GI carbohydrates, low fat proteins, and fresh fruit and vegetables are universal diet basics that all people should follow. So basically, you need carbohydrates, protein, vitamins and minerals in the right proportions for your arthritis diet.
Lately, there has been a lot of literature about the weight loss benefits of low carbohydrate diets. You definitely do not want to go this route if you have arthritis. Carbohydrates are the best source of sustained energy, feeding your body with the calories it needs to stay healthy and fight infection and disease. Carbohydrates like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes contain fibre, essential in helping the body to stay regular and remove toxins from the bowel. Carbohydrates also contain nutrients like calcium, iron, and the vitamin B group. Carbohydrates should ideally make up a third of the total calories that we consume. This means that you should consume about 6-14 portions a day, choosing as many wholegrain varieties as possible. As an example, 1 slice of bread, 3 tablespoons of cereal or a bread roll will constitute one portion.
Carbohydrates high in fibre and with a low GI are beneficial because the make you feel fuller for longer and does not spike blood sugar levels. The high fibre varieties are more bulky, so they take up more space in the stomach, making you feel full. This means foods like pastries, biscuits, sweets and too much sugar in you tea and coffee is not healthy and places pressure on the body to process.
Eating enough protein is essential keeping every single tissue in your body healthy. Protein is found in your organs, bones, muscles and skin. The whole body is made up of about 25% protein. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are about 25 different amino acids, 8 of which are essential- this means that the body cannot function without them. The others can be made from these 8. Good sources of protein are fish, chicken, eggs, red meat, dairy products, beans, nuts, seeds, lentils and tofu. These all have about 10g of protein per 100g (10% protein). This means that if you eat enough calories from quality sources, you are likely getting enough protein. In fact, most modern sources say that even if you are strictly vegetarian, you will get all the amino acids you need to stay healthy. However, you would have to eat a varied, healthy diet. These sources also contain the B vitamin group, zinc and iron.
Are you getting enough protein for your arthritis diet? You typically need about two portions of good quality protein daily to keep you healthy. These portions can come from meat or vegetarian sources. Keep lean meat down to four times a week and try to have fish at least 4 times a week. The other portions can be made up of foods like soya, tofu and beans. This amount of protein should roughly equate to about 10% of your daily caloric intake. The World Health Organisation recommends 10%, which is roughly about 35g of protein. A portion is about 100 grams of whatever source you choose.
Since protein makes you feel full quickly, some diets prescribe a lot of protein rich foods and cut out carbohydrates almost totally. This leads to a loss in muscle tissue, something that you really don't want if you have osteoarthritis. This is because your body needs the energy from carbohydrates to feed muscle tissues. People suffering from osteoarthritis need good muscle tone around the joint. So diets that promote high protein intake can be toxic to the body and lead to a reduction in muscle mass.
Fats and Oils
Contrary to what some sources might suggest, fat is an essential part of a healthy diet and especially for an arthritis diet. It provides a lot of energy and helps the body to absorb vitamins. We typically need about 25 grams of fat per day. The typical western diet is unfortunately packed with fat, way too much than what our bodies actually need. The benefits of a low fat diet stretches beyond weight reduction which will improve symptoms in the long term. Patients cutting down on fat intake feel rapid relief from symptoms.
There are however two types of fat, one good for you, and the other unhealthy in high levels. Saturated fat, found in red meat, butter, cakes, pastry, and most vegetable oils are unhealthy because they lead to high cholesterol, high triglyceride levels and most importantly, high homocysteine levels. This has been linked to heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. Homocyteine levels can be lowered by following the guidelins of an arthritis diet and by supplementing with a vitamin B complex. Saturated fats block the conversion of the essential (good) fats from being used to lower inflammation in the body. They also hold bad news for those who want to lose weight. Calories from saturated fat are more efficiently stored as fat in the body compared to calories from proteins and carbohydrates. These 'bad' fats should be scarce in your arthritis diet.
On the other hand, unsaturated fats, found in olive oil, oily fish, nuts, avocados and some margarines have long lists of health benefits. People consuming olive oil every day are less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis. They are good for fighting heart disease, lowering cholesterol and homocysteine and may actually reduce inflammation levels in the body. The ideal arthritis diet is one that is very low in saturated fat and sufficient in essential fats. A vegan diet (one excluding meat, fish, eggs and dairy) will definitely reduce saturated fat, but you run the risk of being deficient in vitamin D and B12. Vegans need to supplement these nutrients.
Vitamins and Minerals
The food we consume, especially fruits and vegetables contain much of the vitamins and minerals we need to keep us healthy. We should eat at least three fruit a day and a lot of vegetables with our meals. Some people with arthritis prefer to cut out some foods that they believe might aggravate their arthritis. When you cut out these foods, you are missing out on the nutrients in that specific food. A good idea might be to take that nutrient in a supplement form. Vitamins are also powerful anti-oxidants, especially vitamin C and vitamin E. Don't make the mistake cutting out citrus and tomatoes from your arthritis diet. There is no evidence that it will relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. This will also mean that you miss out on a vital source of vitamin C. There is quite a lot written about the benefits of taking higher levels of anti-oxidants in your arthritis diet. Anti-oxidants help to neutralise free radicals, chemicals that can damage cartilage and cause inflammation.
70% of our body is water. Water forms an important part of your arthritis diet. For normal daily activities, we need about 1,5 litres of water a day. Drinking fruit juice, flavoured water and herbal tea can also count as fluid. Remember that coffee and alcoholic drinks are diuretics, so you end up with a overall loss of body fluid. Contrary to what some believe, water doesn't lubricate the joints, but it does help the kidneys to flush out the toxins in the body. An excess of toxins might be linked to worse symptoms. Drinking lots of fluids is linked to a strong immune system, since nutrients are carried throughout the body by means of water.
Salt is necessary to keep the correct water balance in the body. If you have hypertension problems, salt can make things worse. Most people probably eat too much salt. Do you put salt on your food without tasting it first? This can be a bad habit, since your sense of taste can adapt to less salt. More than a teaspoon of salt a day is probably too much already.
Alcohol need not be cut out totally from the arthritis diet. One or two drinks can actually fuel the metabolism, but obviously most alcoholic drinks contain a lot of calories, so it can contribute to weight gain. Alcohol can also exacerbate the side effects of many of the medications of for arthritis. Too much alcohol puts pressure on the liver to detoxify the alcohol. This is important because many of the arthritis medications also put pressure on the liver. Too keep things safe, men should not drink more than 3 units of alcohol a day and 21 units a week. For women, no more than 2 units a day or 14 units a week. A unit is about 1 pint of beer or cider. A glass of wine is about two units.
Controlling your weight
The best place to start a weight loss program is in the office of a dietician. These professionals are trained in the latest, most healthy ways of gaining or losing weight and in selecting your arthritis diet. Avoid wasting your time and money by following diets you found in a magazine or somewhere on the internet. If a diet claims fast weight loss, you should already be cautious, because losing weight quickly is not healthy. If you lose or gain weight, you should also inform your doctor, since it might mean that your medication has to be adjusted.
This is one of the risk factors for developing or worsening your osteoarthritis. If you are overweight, it places more stress on the weight bearing joint. More specifically, carrying more weight than you should puts pressure on the cartilage, which may be worn out already. Remember that the cartilage is only a few millimetres thick, so the pressure can grind it away so that you eventually have bone rubbing against bone. The joints in the hips and knees are especially vulnerable. Studies show that by losing just 5 kilograms over a ten year period can reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis by 50%.
Arthritis sufferers often become inactive because of their symptoms, leading to further weight gain. Depression because of the symptoms and the outlook can also lead to compulsive eating and a lack of motivation to exercise.
Being overweight also seems to make people with rheumatoid arthritis more prone to inflammation. Obesity also limits your options of having joint replacement surgery. Obese people are at greater risk for complications when receiving a general anaesthetic.
Besides affecting the symptoms of your arthritis, being overweight is a risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension and various types of cancer like prostate and colon cancer.
If you want to lose weight there are a few principles to discuss with your dietician:
Eat regularly: Skipping meals will make your blood sugar levels fluctuate and make you feel tired. This could also cause you to be very hungry, leading to you eating too much at once. Eat before you feel hungry.
Eat about 6 small meals that fit in with your 'arthritis diet': This fuels your body regularly, speeding up your metabolism. A sluggish metabolism tends to go into storage mode.
Cut down on sweet drinks and foods: Many foods contain hidden sugar, so read the label. Remember that fruit juice contains a lot of calories, so don't drink too much. Two glasses a day is enough. Use a sweetener or some honey in your coffee and tea.
Snack on fruit and nuts through the day: If you feel hungry between meals, rather have a handful of nuts and a fruit.