Nutrition Column – Nutrition Advice for People with Arthritis

Can the foods you eat affect your arthritis? Given the varied nature of the symptoms of arthritis, it’s natural to think that the food you ate yesterday caused or reduced the pain you feel today. While this may or may not be the case, one thing is for sure – eating a nutritious, well-balanced diet is a good idea for everyone and can be especially important for those with arthritis. In fact, there is good evidence that excessive weight and the type of diet you follow may influence symptoms of certain types of arthritis and related conditions.

On the other hand, one needs to be wary of special diets and nutritional supplements that claim to cure arthritis. Unfortunately, most of the claims for these cure-all diets or nutritional supplements have not been scientifically tested to determine if they work and are safe.

Arthritis is a complicated autoimmune disease without simple answers. Because there are more than 100 types of arthritis and related diseases, there isn’t one single diet plan that will help everyone. What medical and nutrition experts do generally recommend, however, is that people with arthritis follow a diet based on variety, balance and moderation. Consuming a variety of different kinds of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is important in addition to moderating the amount of foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat. Eating a well-balanced diet may help you feel better overall, aid in weight control and help prevent other chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer.  

Recent research also suggests that consuming omega-3 fatty acids found in cold-water fish and other seafood may reduce joint inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis. In addition, an adequate intake of both vitamin D and calcium is necessary to prevent osteoporosis. Arthritis patients tend to develop osteoporosis as a result of a lack of exercise and, in the case of rheumatoid arthritis, from the inflammation. Further, eating foods rich in zinc and selenium (lean ground beef, chicken, whole-wheat bread, eggs, almonds, milk and tofu) may be beneficial because both of these minerals have anti-inflammatory properties.

Certain medications also may affect your body’s nutrient needs. For example, antacids, taken sometimes to reduce stomach irritation, can contain high levels of calcium, sodium and magnesium. Glucocorticoids prescribed to treat rheumatoid arthritis can cause your body to lose potassium and retain sodium. Penicillamine, also used for rheumatoid arthritis, may lower blood levels of copper. Methotrexate used for rheumatoid arthritis, myositis and psoriatic arthritis may lower levels of folic acid. Colchicine, used for gout, may affect how well vitamin B-12 is absorbed. In many cases, eating a variety of foods will provide sufficient levels of these minerals without added supplementation. However, it is a good idea to ask your doctor how the medication prescribed for you may affect your nutrient needs and whether a vitamin and mineral supplement may be appropriate for you.

For arthritis patients, good nutrition can sometimes be challenging. Joint pain, inflammation and fatigue can make food preparation difficult. Certain arthritis medications can lower your appetite or cause stomach upset. Likewise, the depression that sometimes affects people with chronic illnesses may alter eating habits and appetite. The key is to educate yourself, make gradual changes and seek the guidance of your doctor or a registered dietitian.

For more information about nutrition and arthritis, contact the Arthritis Foundation at 1-800-283-7800 and request the brochure, Diet and Your Arthritis, or visit them on the Web at

by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension