Maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for improving weight and overall health, but for patients living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a healthy diet has also been shown to have some therapeutic benefits. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that causes the body’s immune system to attack the joints. In addition to causing pain and swelling, RA can attack major organs or other body tissues, increasing the risk for serious health complications. RA therapies work to control symptoms and slow the progression of the condition; however, many patients and physicians also see diet as an important, supplemental tool for managing joint inflammation.

Both the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center and the Arthritis Foundation suggest that a well-balanced diet composed of “real foods” can help patients manage and reduce RA symptoms. Fruits and vegetables have proven benefits for RA patients because they contain important antioxidants like vitamins A, C, E, and selenium that destroy damaging free radicals, which ultimately reduces inflammation in the body. Increasing dietary fiber through an intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts can also help to reduce inflammation because fiber lowers levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), another indicator of inflammation. In addition to a plant-based diet, research has found that Omega-3 fatty acids in fish oils have promising anti-inflammatory benefits for joints. Although there has been some controversy around fish oil supplements as a safe and effective means of dietary therapy, researchers agree that RA patients should incorporate fatty, cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel as part of their diets. Some researchers suggest that following dietary plans like the Mediterranean diet or certain aspects of the Paleo diet can improve some RA symptoms because both meal guidelines promote all-natural foods.

Just as diet can have powerful benefits for RA patients, certain foods have been shown to worsen symptoms. Because highly processed foods containing white flour and refined sugar are often considered culprits for increased joint inflammation and discomfort, researchers often recommend that patients avoid or limit sugary drinks and desserts. Similarly, foods high in saturated fats, trans fats, and Omega-6 fatty acids have been known to increase RA symptoms as well; thus, patients should try to restrict fried and processed foods from their diets. Dairy products and alcohol are trickier for patients to manage. Both have been shown to contain some therapeutic benefit for RA patients if consumed in moderation, but if patients overindulge, the opposite effect can occur.

Researchers are still exploring the therapeutic benefits of diet for RA patients. Although they have identified some foods that improve or intensify symptoms, some patients have experienced other food hypersensitivities. Doctors typically recommend diet elimination strategies to pinpoint foods that could be causing increased inflammation. This strategy can be effective for removing problematic foods from the diet, but elimination can provide only temporary relief from symptoms, not long-term benefits for the condition.

Making healthy choices is important for supporting good overall health, but diet should not be used as substitute for RA therapy. Patients should consult with their physicians before making dietary changes or adding supplements as both of these may impact therapy.  

Resources:

Arthritis Foundation—Nutritional Guidelines for People With Rheumatoid Arthritis

Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center—Nutrition & Rheumatoid Arthritis