Diets and Foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis


Sarah Lewis, PharmD

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fruits and vegetables

It seems as if there’s always a new diet claiming to treat or cure chronic diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis (RA). They include everything from vegan and Mediterranean diets to fasting, elemental, and elimination diets. The problem with most of these diets is that there is very little science to support them. Contrary to what you might read on the internet, no specific foods or diets will cure or prevent arthritis.

Most health experts agree that the topic hasn’t been studied enough to make any firm recommendations. Like everyone, people with rheumatoid arthritis should eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. Unfortunately, folks with active RA suffer from loss of appetite and may fail to receive adequate nutrition. Many lose interest in eating—others just don't feel well enough to prepare meals. Here are some simple tips to making sure you get the nutrition you need.

Eating a Healthy Diet

Until scientists find more definite answers, the best diet you can follow is a healthy diet that balances the food groups—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy. A balanced diet promotes health and helps you avoid malnutrition—a common problem for people with RA. A balanced diet is also important for maintaining a healthy weight, which can relieve pressure on your joints.

Here are some other tips to help you eat healthy:

  • Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, and whole grain starches

  • Choose low-fat sources of protein, such as chicken, lean cuts of meat, fish, and beans

  • Choose low-fat or nonfat dairy products

  • Limit foods high in fat, empty calories (like regular soda and potato chips), and salt

Vitamins and Supplements

Most healthcare providers agree that it’s best to get your vitamins and minerals from food. However, sometimes you may need a supplement to meet your nutritional goals. Because people with RA can have problems with malnutrition and some RA medications make it worse, it may be a good idea to take a vitamin supplement. If you’re concerned, ask your doctor about supplements including:

  • B vitamins, especially folic acid

  • Vitamin C, vitamin E, and other antioxidants

  • Calcium and vitamin D

Foods and Inflammation

There is some scientific evidence that certain forms of fats make inflammation worse and others make it better. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish such as tuna and salmon) and unsaturated fats may help fight inflammation. However, omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fats may make inflammation worse. Increasing the ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s in your diet is the basis for the Mediterranean diet.

Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids and saturated fats that should be limited include:

  • Corn

  • Sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oil

  • Fried foods

  • Margarine and other spreads

Research looking at the effects of omega-3 fatty acids is less clear. For now, talk with your doctor about omega-3 fatty acids before changing your diet or starting a supplement.

Fasting, Elimination, and Elemental Diets

Some people believe that certain foods worsen their rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. As a result, they eliminate the culprit foods from their diet. Other dietary changes include a period of fasting (seven to 10 days) followed by a specific or restrictive diet, such as a vegetarian or vegan diet. A vegetarian diet excludes beef, poultry and fish; whereas, a vegan diet excludes beef, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Elemental diets are manufactured packets of essential amino acids, glucose (sugar), vitamins and minerals, and triglycerides (dietary fat).The elemental diet is considered hypoallergenic, meaning it does not contain ingredients, such as lactose and gluten that are known to cause an inflammatory or immune response in some people.

Studies on these types of dietary changes do not show any long-term benefits. Furthermore, fasting, elimination, and elemental diets may be risky for people with RA. Anytime you omit certain foods or food groups from your diet, you may be missing important nutrients and calories. If you notice that certain foods tend to make your symptoms worse, talk with your doctor about how to safely avoid that food and replace it with an equally nutritious choice.

While it is not certain that dietary changes will help your RA, most experts agree that people with rheumatoid arthritis should eat a healthy, nutritious diet consisting of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. A healthy diet can boost your energy, protect against nutritional deficiencies, and help you look and feel your best.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Mar 28, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Smedslund G, Byfuglien MG, Olsen SU, and Hagen KB.Dietary interventions for rheumatoid arthritis. J AmDiet Assoc. 2010;110:727-35.
  2. Haugen M, Fraser D, and Forre O. Diet therapy for the patient with rheumatoid arthritis?Rheumatology. 1999;38(11):1039-44.
  3. Kragh JK. Rheumatoid arthritis treated with vegetarian diets. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70(3):594S-600S.
  4. Mann DL. Rheumatoid Arthritis Diet: RA and Food Allergies. Arthritis Foundation. Accessed November 28, 2011.
  5. Eat to Beat Joint Inflammation. Arthritis Foundation. Accessed November 2, 2011.
  6. Defining a Vegan Lifestyle. Accessed January 26, 2012.
  7. Nutrition and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Accessed November 2, 2011.
  8. Arthritis. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Accessed November 7, 2011.
  9. Healthy Joints Matter. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Accessed November 2, 2011.
  10. Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs).Nutrition Review. Accessed January 26. 2012.

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