Rheumatoid Arthritis and Anti-Inflammatory Foods


Chris Iliades, MD

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plate of cooked salmon

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease of inflammation. With RA the body's immune system becomes confused and releases toxic chemicals which stimulate inflammation. Inflammation is irritation and swelling caused by your body's immune system. The goal of treating RA is to reduce that inflammation. One way you can help manage your disease is by including anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.

The Basics

There is no magic bullet (or entree) for RA when it comes to diet. As a general rule, the diet recommended for people with RA is the same balanced diet that is recommended for everybody else. Here are the basics:

  • Two-thirds of your calories should come from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

  • Get protein from sources that are low in saturated fats.

  • Avoid foods with added sugar.

  • Maintain a healthy weight by balancing your calorie intake with physical activity.

RA and Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Even though there is no known diet that will cure RA, certain foods may help. Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy fats that have been shown to block inflammation. There is some evidence they can reduce RA symptoms like painful and stiff joints. Other research suggests that omega-3s can reduce the amount of RA medication you need to take. The natural way to get omega-3s into your diet is to eat cold water fish including salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel, and fresh tuna.

Here is what you need to know about omega-3 fatty acids:

  • It may take about 12 weeks to see the benefits of omega-3s.

  • For full benefits, you need to consume almost three grams of omega-3s every day.

  • One three- to four-ounce serving of cold water fish equals about one gram of omega-3.

  • Taking more than three grams of omega-3s can interfere with certain drugs and cause side effects.

  • Omega-3s are also available as fish oil supplements, but may not be as helpful as getting them in food. Talk to your doctor before adding supplements to your diet.

RA and Antioxidants

Antioxidants, also called phytochemicals, are nutritional compounds found in brightly colored fruits and vegetables. Vitamins C, E and A are just a few examples of antioxidants. Adding antioxidants to your diet may help fight inflammation because they block the cell damage caused by destructive molecules called free radicals.

Here is what you need to know about antioxidants:

  • A diet rich in antioxidants from fruits and vegetables is safe and may help protect you against many chronic diseases.

  • Antioxidants are also found in whole grains and nuts.

  • Your antioxidants should come from eating a varied diet. There is no strong evidence that taking antioxidants in supplement form adds additional benefits.

Putting It All Together: The Mediterranean Diet

This is the healthful diet that people in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea have eaten for hundreds of years. It features fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, fish, whole grains, olive oil, and less saturated fat. Because these foods have many anti-inflammatory benefits, this diet may be helpful for people with RA.

Here is what you need to know about the Mediterranean diet:

  • Olive oil is a big part of this diet. Olive oil contains oleocanthal, an ingredient that blocks inflammation in the same way as ibuprofen and aspirin.

  • Fiber from whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables also provides many of the anti-inflammatory benefits of this diet. Studies show that getting a lot of fiber lowers a protein in your blood called C-reactive protein. High levels of this protein are associated with active inflammation in your body.

  • One of the biggest advantages to this diet is that it helps prevent obesity. Being overweight is hard on joints, and research shows that obesity also promotes inflammation.

You can't go wrong by sticking to a well-balanced diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat protein sources.

Key Takeaways

  • Anti-inflammatory foods can be part of a well-balanced RA diet.

  • Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants may help fight inflammation, so include servings of coldwater fish for omega-3s in your diet.

  • The Mediterranean diet is an example of a safe, healthful, and well-balanced diet that may help fight inflammation.

  • Talk to your doctor before taking supplements or making any major changes to your diet.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Apr 17, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Antioxidant Supplements for Health: An Introduction. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. National Institutes of Health. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm
  2. Inflammatory Mechanisms in Obesity. Annual Review of Immunology.Vol. 29: 415-445. April 2011. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev-immunol-031210-101322?journalCode=immunol
  3. Nutrition Guidelines for People With Rheumatoid Arthritis. Arthritis Foundation. http://www.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/arthritis-diet/anti-inflammatory/rheumatoid-arthritis....
  4. Nutrition & Rheumatoid Arthritis. Johns Hopkins Rheumatology. http://www.hopkinsarthritis.org/patient-corner/disease-management/rheumatoid-arthrtis-nutrition/
  5. Skoldstam L, Hagfors L, and Johansson G. An experimental study of a Mediterranean diet intervention for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Ann Rheum Dis. 2003 March; 62(3): 208–14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1754463/
  6. Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis. National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society. http://www.nras.org.uk/diet-rheumatoid-arthritis

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