Arthritis: Can your diet really help?

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Dr. Sheena Hunt
Dr. Sheena Hunt

There is much conflicting information on the internet about whether your diet can help reduce joint pain and inflammation. This search for healing foods may be inspired when patients and their families become concerned about side effects of long-term use of pharmaceuticals to manage inflammation and joint pain. Arthritis patients may be willing to try a new, even radical, diet or avoid certain foods in order to help ease their pain. Yet many of the diets recommended have not been tried or tested scientifically. Is there a correlation between your diet and the health and mobility of your joints?

The Mediterranean diet has been the subject of much research in recent years. As early as 1970, the Seven Countries Study reported the benefits to cardiovascular health of a Mediterranean type diet. There is not a strict, single Mediterranean diet that outlines food choices or meal plans, rather, the diet includes  different food cultures from the Mediterranean region, with some common dietary characteristics. The Mediterranean diet generally consists of fresh, unprocessed foods and foods that are very low in saturated fat and sugar. The basic guidelines are large quantities of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, potatoes, whole grains, breads, herbs, spices, fish, seafood and extra virgin olive oil. Poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt should be eaten in in moderation, and only small amounts of red meat. The diet recommends avoiding, as much as possible, sugar-sweetened beverages, added sugars, processed meat, refined grains, refined oils and other highly processed foods. Herbs and spices should be used more frequently than salt. Plus, there is no need to feel guilty about the occasional glass of wine! The diet includes all food groups and so is considered nutritionally adequate and complete.

An early study conducted in Greece and published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2004 found that adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet was associated with reduced inflammation and improved markers of coagulation (indicating that it also has beneficial effects on the heart). Another study published in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases in 2007 reported successful results from research conducted in and area of social deprivation in Glasgow, Scotland. The study found that among women between 30 and 70 years old who had rheumatoid arthritis, a diet rich in fish, fruit and vegetables, and low in saturated fat resulted in significantly reduced pain and stiffness over a 6-month period. Even in an area of social deprivation, the study reported that changing to a Mediterranean diet was achievable and well received in these patients. Most patients felt that the recipes were easy to make and affordable.

Extra virgin olive oil is an important component of the Mediterranean style diet; in which it is simply part of every day meal preparation. One phenolic compound in olive oil, oleocanthhal, has been reported to have properties capable of reducing inflammatory-related disease, including joint-degenerative disease.  In Mediterranean cuisine, olive oil is used instead of butter and other saturated fats.

A recent review published in Swiss Medical Weekly in 2015 reported that the Mediterranean style diet is associated with a number of joint health benefits for patients who have rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, or gout. This type of diet also is known to contribute to the maintenance of healthy, balanced gut microbiota (good bacteria). There is increasing evidence that maintenance of healthy gut bacteria is essential in inflammatory conditions including lupus, gout and arthritis.   

According to the Arthritis Foundation, not only can the Mediterranean diet benefit your joints and curb inflammation, but it can also lower blood pressure, protect against many chronic conditions ranging from cancer to stroke, benefit your heart, and lead to weight loss, which in turn is of great benefit in managing joint pain. The manufacturers of the scientifically-proven joint support product, Arthrem®, believe that diet is just one of the ways to improve long-term joint health. They have come up with a range of simple, delicious, healthy, joint-friendly meals such as this salmon recipe.

A common question that people ask is whether or not there are certain foods to avoid when combatting inflammation. In general, healthcare professionals and registered dieticians don't recommend that people should adopt extreme eating plans or cut out entire food groups (unless it is in response to a specific allergy). There seems to be very little evidence to avoid the nightshade family of vegetables (eggplant, tomatoes, red bell peppers and potatoes). In fact, these foods are extremely good for you. In spite of the lack of scientific evidence, however, some people are convinced that avoiding nightshade vegetables can provide symptom relief. If you have had a pain flare up after eating nightshade vegetables, try eliminating them for a couple of weeks and then reintroduce then, one at a time, slowly, to see if there is a difference in your pain. When someone has a flare up it can be caused by many factors other than diet.

Whether it is called the Mediterranean diet or an anti-inflammatory diet, as with so many things, moderation is important to joint health. A healthy, balanced diet rich in vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats plus regular exercise is the lifestyle choice most likely to keep your joints mobile and healthy.

Sheena Hunt, Ph.D. is the principal scientist for Promisia Integrative Limited.


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