Top 5 diet tips to help ease arthritis

Arthritis Research UK has shared some top tips on how your diet can play an important part in helping to keep your joints healthy.

A person with arthritis massaging their foot

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).

Weight loss

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 starch 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

A colourful selection of 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.

Discover what counts as five-a-day and cheap ways to get your five-a-day.

Exercise regularly

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

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.

Arthritis Research UK 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:

The best sources of calcium
Am I at risk of calcium deficiency?
What is osteoporosis and what affects bone density?

Iron

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

Fish oil supplements arranged into a fish shape

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, Arthritis Research UK recommends eating oily fish at least twice a week. However, it’s not recommended to eat oily fish more than four times a week 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:

  • Anchovies
  • Eel
  • Salmon
  • Sardines
  • Tuna (fresh or frozen)
  • Trout
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Whitebait

Try our healthy fish recipes and our favourite healthy ways to cook salmon.

Broccoli

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.

Arthritis Research UK’s 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 Arthritis Research UK to find out more about the everyday realities of the condition and National Arthritis Week.


This article was last reviewed on 31st August 2017 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.

A registered Nutritional Therapist, 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).

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Lindsey Baldwin
8th Aug, 2017
I cut out nightshade foods and found that I rarely have any flare ups and I'm mostly pain free. Doing this also cuts out a lot of processed food (paprika and 'seasoning' really is in everything!). It's made a huge difference as I can go to the gym more, lose more weight and build more muscle. All positive changes.
lynnbelmar
13th Oct, 2013
I have rheumatoid arthritis and have found eliminating or at least limiting tomatoes has helped ease my pain. No rhubarb either!! ginger helps me with inflammation and I do eat lots of fruit and veg. I tested the tomato theory on myself - used to eat lots of them. Stopped for 2 weeks, pain eased, started eating again and pain increased a bit. Limit my dairy, use soya instead.
lilmissycupcake
9th Oct, 2013
I've got rheumatoid arthritis and have found that oranges make my joints flare up. So I avoid any kind of orange now - juice, flavourings etc. Not sure if there's medical evidence behind it but I've heard that oranges can cause trouble from several different people.
kezv88's picture
kezv88
9th Oct, 2013
As if I needed another reason to love broccoli! Fingers crossed the findings are relevant! My mother found cutting tomatoes out of her diet helped with rheumatoid arthritis.
java65's picture
java65
8th Oct, 2013
My father, 75, has stopped using dairy products and switched to soyaproducts (milk and yoghurt). Since he switched, his arthrithis pain has gone down by 80%. He has control over his hand once more.
floss666
9th Oct, 2013
Thanks Java65 --I'll give it a try myself
annahorvath
7th Oct, 2013
Thank you! It is a useful overwiev.
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