What you eat can make a big difference in how you feel. Follow these RA-friendly, flare-fighting food tips!
Jeanne Peters, RD, is aware of the latest research on nutrition and health—and she’s always made a point of sharing that knowledge with her patients. But Peters, who is nutrition director of the Nourishing Wellness Medical Center in Redondo Beach, Calif., admits that she hasn’t always taken the best possible care of herself. When she decided to make lifestyle changes to better manage her rheumatoid arthritis (RA), however, Peters decided it was time to follow her own advice.
After switching to a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, Peters says the stiffness in her hip and leg joints eased considerably. “Eating foods rich in omega-3 and antioxidants can really lessen RA flare-ups. It worked for many of my patients—and for me.”
If you have RA and love to eat, Peters and other experts want you to know that you, too, may be able to reduce inflammation and pain by eating—or avoiding—specific foods. In recent years, evidence has been mounting that there is a significant link between people’s food choices and the health of their joints. Here are some of the key research findings:
• Fight fire with fat. Numerous studies have shown that eating food high in omega-3 fatty acids can reduce joint inflammation. The evidence is so strong that many doctors now urge their patients to eat salmon and other fish packed with omega-3s, along with walnuts, soy foods, canola oil, and flax and pumpkin seeds. It’s best to get omega-3 fatty acids directly from food. But if you just don’t like fish and are having trouble getting adequate amounts of omega-3 from your meals, ask your doctor if you should consider taking fish-oil capsules. “Just make sure the fish oil you buy is high in omega-3 fatty acids,” says Peters, who thinks of omega-3 capsules as a form of WD-40 for our joints. Most capsules come in 200- and 300-milligram doses. Fish-oil capsules are available at most health-food and grocery stores.
• Produce is protective. A recent study from the Mayo Clinic found that women who eat fruit and vegetables at every meal are much less likely to suffer RA flare-ups than women who don’t. That’s because virtually all fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants—substances that help protect the body’s cells and tissues. Mayo researchers recommended that people with RA aim for at least five fruit and veggie servings daily.
• Food allergies may contribute to flare-ups. Norwegian researchers have found abnormally high levels of antibodies to certain foods—including milk, eggs, and pork—in the intestinal fluid of people with RA. High levels of these antibodies indicate that a person’s immune system mistakenly thinks something they ate was harmful. The result? Their immune system produces antibodies that set off a chain reaction leading to inflammation.
• Meat may cause flare-ups. British research suggests that people who frequently eat red meat are more than twice as likely to have arthritic flare-ups as are those who avoid meat. The investigators think the problem could be linked to various substances in meat, such as collagen, additives, or even infectious agents.
Although experts are not yet prepared to advocate a definitive “rheumatoid arthritis diet,” many suggest that people with RA carefully track what they eat and try to eliminate items that cause them trouble. “No diet known so far can reverse RA,” says Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, a culinary educator in Sonoma County, California. “However, foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fats, processed food, and foods made with white flour and sugar, may be problematic for many people. It’s really best to see how one does without these foods to see whether there is any reduction in symptoms.”
Jeanne Peters is onboard with that advice. These days, she generally builds her meals around fish and colorful vegetables and herbs—the brighter the better. “I believe,” she says, “that food should be healing, healthful, and taste great.”