Arthritis is a debilitating condition that causes pain and disability for one in six people in the UK. It causes pain and stiffness in the joints and muscles, stopping you from doing simple things many take for granted – walking, moving, lifting and standing. Many struggle to do even the simplest of tasks, like opening a jam jar or walking downstairs. Arthritis can affect anyone at any time, including young people and children.
Although there are no diets or dietary supplements that will cure arthritis, some people do find that a change in diet can improve symptoms and help to manage pain, and the difficulties of everyday living.
The most important link between your diet and arthritis is your weight. Being overweight puts an extra burden on the joints, especially weight-bearing joints – the back, knees, hips, feet and ankles. Having too much body fat may also increase inflammation in the body, making your joints more painful.
A good diet can also help to protect you against some potential side effects of arthritis medication, and a healthy diet may also help to protect against heart disease (which can sometimes be a complication of certain types of arthritis).
If you’re overweight, losing some weight will reduce the strain on your joints so you may find you don’t need to take painkillers quite so often. The only way to lose weight and keep it off is to change the way you eat and the amount of exercise you do. You need to balance your food intake against the energy you burn.
Because of the way our joints work, the pressure on our knee joints is five-six times our body weight when walking, so even a small weight loss can make a big difference if you have arthritis.
If you eat fewer calories, it’s important to maintain a balance between different types of food so you don’t lose out on important nutrients. Read on for top tips for reducing your calorie intake safely.
Cut down on fat
Fat has twice as many calories as the same weight of carbs or protein and most people eat far more fat than they need. Eating 30g (about 1oz) less fat each day saves 270 calories.
Cut down on sugar
Sugar contains only calories and has no other food value so you can cut down on sugar without losing any nourishment. Eating 30g (about 1oz) less sugar each day saves 120 calories. You can use dried fruit, like raisins, to sweeten cereals and puddings; unlike sugar and artificial sweeteners, they provide vitamins and minerals. But go easy, as dried fruits are still fairly high in calories.
Discover more in our expert sugar guides.
Eat more fruit and vegetables
The World Health Organisation recommends that you eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables every day. This is to make sure your body receives the important nutrients that it needs to maintain good health and to protect it during the stress of disease. It has been suggested that antioxidants may help to protect the joints by mopping up some of the chemicals that cause inflammation. Choose more vegetables or salad to help fill your plate but lower your calorie intake. Fruit and vegetables are good sources of fibre and choosing fruit and vegetables of different colours will give you a variety of vitamins and minerals. Brightly coloured vegetables and fruits are rich in antioxidants, as are leafy green vegetables.
Exercise not only burns calories that would otherwise end up as fat, it also increases your strength and suppleness. It’s important to find something you can manage and enjoy as this will encourage you to do it regularly.
Get inspired with our fitness and nutrition guides.
Calcium, along with nutrients like vitamin D and magnesium, is important for maintaining healthy bones. Calcium deficiency increases your risk of osteoporosis, which is even more of a risk for women after the menopause. Many people with arthritis also have a risk of developing osteoporosis.
Calcium can be found in:
- Dairy products such as milk, cheese, yogurt (low-fat ones are best – skimmed and semi-skimmed milk contains more calcium than full-fat milk).
- Calcium-enriched milk alternatives made from soya, rice or oats.
- Fish that are eaten with the bones (such as sardines and canned salmon).
- Green leafy vegetables like Swiss chard.
Versus Arthritis recommends a daily intake of calcium of 1,000 milligrams (mg), with added vitamin D if you’re over 60.
Read more about calcium and osteoporosis:
Iron is important in preventing anaemia and many people with arthritis are anaemic. Anti-inflammatory drugs to help treat arthritis help the pain and stiffness of arthritis but may cause bleeding and stomach ulcers in some people, leading to anaemia. The other main cause of anaemia in arthritis is anaemia of chronic disease, which often occurs with rheumatoid arthritis and similar conditions and doesn’t improve with iron supplements.
Good sources of iron are:
- Lean red meats as well as the darker meat of chicken (such as thigh fillets)
- Oily fish e.g. sardines, salmon, mackerel etc
- Pulses e.g. lentils and haricot beans
- Dark green vegetables e.g. spinach, kale and watercress.
Your body absorbs iron better if you take it with vitamin C, so have fruit juice or a good portion of fruit or vegetables with your meal. It is best not to drink tea with your meal as this reduces the amount of iron that your body can absorb – wait an hour after eating before you enjoy your next cuppa.
Discover easy ways to boost your iron intake.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids have been shown to help some people with inflammatory types of arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, as it can decrease the number of tender joints and shorten the time people feel joint stiffness. They can be found in rapeseed oil, free range eggs, oily fish and fish oil supplements.
If you want to increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, Versus Arthritis recommends eating oily fish at least twice a week. However, it’s not recommended to eat oily fish more than four times a week (if you are a woman of reproductive age) so you may want to consider a supplement. It’s better to take pure fish oil rather than fish liver oil.
Oily fish that contains high levels of omega-3 include:
- Tuna (fresh or frozen)
According to research led by the University of East Anglia (UEA), a compound found in broccoli could be key to preventing or slowing the progress of the most common form of arthritis, osteoarthritis. At this stage the research has only been found in animals and it’s not known how much would need to be consumed/taken for it to have an effect, however it’s a potentially exciting study for the future.
Versus Arthritis’ former medical director Prof Alan Silman said: “Until now research has failed to show that food or diet can play any part in reducing the progression of osteoarthritis, so if these findings can be replicated in humans, it would be quite a breakthrough. We know that exercise and keeping to a healthy weight can improve people’s symptoms and reduce the chances of the disease progressing, but this adds another layer in our understanding of how diet could play its part.”
Visit the Versus Arthritis website to find out more about the everyday realities of the condition.
This article was last reviewed on 19 February 2018 by Kerry Torrens.
A qualified nutritionist (MBANT), Kerry Torrens is a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food magazine. Kerry is a member of the The Royal Society of Medicine, Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC), British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).
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