If you live with arthritis, you’re not alone. According to the Arthritis Foundation, about 66 million Americans have either been diagnosed as having arthritis by their doctor or suffer from undiagnosed chronic joint pain. Arthritis is a general term used to describe more than 100 different conditions that cause pain, stiffness and inflammation in one or more joints.
Because arthritis-related symptoms can vary from day to day, many people wonder if what they eat can either cause or reduce their pain. Although there is no special diet or miracle food that can treat or cure arthritis, there is scientific evidence to suggest that both a person’s weight and the type of diet he or she follows may influence symptoms of certain types of arthritis. In general, people with arthritis are advised to eat a well-balanced diet, drink plenty of fluids, increase calcium intake to reduce osteoporosis risk and maintain their weight within the normal range.
Individuals diagnosed with either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis may benefit from incorporating omega-3 fatty acids into their diet. Research studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids may help reduce the inflammation associated with these types of arthritis, possibly by lowering the number of inflammatory "messenger" molecules made by the body’s immune system. Dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids include flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil, nuts, seeds and coldwater fish, such as salmon, tuna and bluefish.
Another type of arthritis that seems to be affected by diet is gout. Gout is characterized by the build-up of uric acid in the joints, which leads to pain and inflammation. People who have gout are generally advised to restrict their intake of alcohol and foods high in purines such as anchovies, kidney, liver, fish eggs (roe), mackerel, sardines, shrimp and sweetbreads. In addition, those who suffer from gout should avoid regularly over-eating and drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids to help flush uric acid out of the body.
Being overweight or obese can also worsen arthritis symptoms. Joints affected by arthritis are already under strain, and being overweight or obese increases the load on joints, which can exacerbate symptoms especially if you have arthritis of the hip, knee or spine. Engaging in regular moderate exercise can help you take off extra pounds and maintain a healthy weight. While the thought of exercising may make you cringe if you have arthritis, research shows that being active reduces joint pain and stiffness, builds strong muscles around the joint and increases flexibility and endurance. Furthermore, exercising promotes overall health by making you feel more energetic, helping you sleep better, decreasing depression and lowering the risk for other chronic health problems such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
Depending on the specific type of arthritis you have, your doctor or registered dietitian may have additional recommendations regarding your diet and activity. Certain medications commonly prescribed for arthritis may affect your nutrient requirements. Always make sure your doctor is aware of any medications and/or supplements that you’re taking. It’s also a good idea to consult with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making changes to your dietary or exercise habits.
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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension