What to eat to ease arthritis symptoms – how diet can help

Osteoarthritis is a common condition that leaves joints stiff and painful. Fortunately, tweaks to your diet may help, with studies increasingly showing the links between specific foods and symptoms.

Here, nutritionist Jane Clarke shares how simple dietary swaps can help to protect our joints, soothe symptoms and bring relief.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It tends to develop after the age of 50 and is more prevalent in women than in men. Women may experience more severe symptoms too, especially in the knee joints.

As well as ageing, genetics or previous injury can put you at increased risk. Being overweight is also a risk factor for osteoarthritis, especially in the knee joint. A high body fat ratio also affects levels of blood fats. This may explain why there’s a link between osteoarthritis and a greater risk of developing heart disease.

As the condition develops, cartilage around the joints wears away and new bone tissue grows beneath, preventing the joints from moving smoothly, and causing painful inflammation. Over time, the joints may become misshapen, causing further symptoms as muscles become strained and nerves get trapped.

How inflammation impacts our joints

If our joints are swollen, hot and painful, it can seem a leap to think that what we eat may make a difference. But food can be divided into anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory camps.

By taking out inflammatory foods and replacing them with nourishing ingredients, we can make a difference deep inside the body – in our joints, but as a healthy side effect, in our heart and lungs, brain, gut and organs too.

The Mediterranean diet – which is packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, oily fish and not too much red meat – is the gold standard for eating well when you have arthritis, and is recommended by all the arthritis charities, the NHS and dietitians like me.

Numerous studies have demonstrated a link between the Mediterranean diet and a reduction in arthritis symptoms, and there’s also research to show that it can reduce our risk of developing the condition in the first place. I’ve seen many clients reverse much of their pain and stiffness with simple changes to what they eat.

How to reduce inflammation
  • Ditch ultra-processed and processed foods such as industrial-made bread, ready meals, breakfast cereals, sausages, bacon and meat pies, pastries and cakes, soft drinks and crisps.
  • If trying a Mediterranean diet, aim to eat no more than three portions of red meat a week, around 500g in total. Choose grass-fed and unprocessed cuts.
  • Fill up on omega-3 fatty acids that can be found in oily fish, as these can help to reduce inflammation.

How diet can help to ease arthritis symptoms

Reduce trigger foods

I suggest keeping a food diary for a couple of weeks. This will help you identify any foods that seem to trigger symptoms, so you can adapt your diet to suit your body.

Many people with arthritis say they can’t eat too many oranges, tomatoes or other acid-producing foods, which make their joints feel worse. Others report a connection between eating vegetables from the nightshade family – aubergines, potatoes, peppers and tomatoes – and worsening arthritis symptoms. And some people with arthritis say their symptoms ease when they reduce the amount of sugar in their diet.

There’s no hard scientific evidence to support cutting out any of these foods, but a food diary can help you decide if a food might be a trigger for you.

Choose healthy fats

Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, the staple of the Mediterranean diet, have been shown to reduce inflammation as well as improve heart health. However, sunflower, safflower and corn oils, which are omega-6 oils, may trigger symptoms.

Add in oily fish

Oily fish, such as salmon, sardines, pilchards, mackerel and tuna, are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show these can stimulate the body to produce compounds that reduce inflammation and ease arthritis pain.

Oily fish is also a source of vitamin D, which research shows may relieve osteoarthritis and slows down its progression. We absorb most of our vitamin D from sunlight, so try to get outdoors to super-boost your levels. If that’s difficult, you may want to take a supplement. (The Wellbeing team love BetterYou’s oral vitamin D spray – use LIZLOVES for 15% off).

Top up your vitamin C

Fresh fruits and vegetables contain vitamin C. There’s evidence that low levels of this vitamin may increase the progression of osteoarthritis.

Vitamin C also helps with the absorption of iron. A lack of iron can lead to anaemia and fatigue, which can be an issue with arthritis.

Boost collagen production

The amount of collagen we have in our body decreases as we age. This can lead to inflammation and pain in the joints.

Bone broth is rich in collagen and has been promoted as a cure for joint pain and conditions such as arthritis. This is a little misleading, however. The body doesn’t absorb the collagen whole and trasnport it to our joints. Instead, the collagen is broken down into amino acids. These are then used where they are needed most – the joints, but also the muscles, gut and anywhere else in the body.

If you’re particularly worried about your joints, you may want to add in other nutrients that promote collagen production, such as vitamin C (berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens), anthocyanins (purple and red fruits and vegetables, including berries and aubergines), and manganese (try nuts, pulses and wholegrains).

The Wellbeing team also rate the collagen supplements by Ingenious to help top up levels. Use the code LIZLOVES for 15% off your order.

Add prebiotics and probiotics

These boost healthy bacteria in the gut and have been shown to improve symptoms of arthritis.

Good sources of prebiotics include onions, asparagus, chickpeas and oats. Probiotics are found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles and live yoghurt, as well as cheeses.

Find out more about Jane Clarke

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