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Reduce Arthritis Pain With a Plant-Based Diet

Focus on plant-based foods to ease arthritis pain.

Arthritis is a group of diseases that cause painful and swollen joints. Osteoarthritis typically develops gradually and can cause pain and stiffness. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is more aggressive and occurs when the body attacks the joints. RA causes painful, inflamed joints and can result in permanent damage. Certain genes also make some people more likely to develop RA.

If you have RA, a diet change could help you, and perhaps even eliminate your pain entirely. In research studies, many people who cut out certain trigger foods find that their pain improves or goes away. The reason, presumably, is that certain foods spark inflammation in the joints. When those foods are gone, so is the inflammation.

A survey of more than 1,000 arthritis patients revealed that red meat, sugar, fat, salt, caffeine, and nightshade plants (e.g., tomatoes, eggplant) most commonly worsen the condition. Research also shows that dairy protein may make symptoms worse.

One study looked at the effects of a very low-fat vegan diet on people with moderate-to-severe RA. After only four weeks on the diet, people had significant improvements in morning stiffness, RA pain, joint tenderness, and joint swelling.

People with osteoarthritis can also benefit from dietary changes. A 2015 study found that people eating a whole-food, plant-based diet significantly decreased their osteoarthritis pain—in just two weeks. By the end of the six-week study, they reported more energy and better physical functioning, too.

Another study found that a high-fiber diet lowers the risk for knee osteoarthritis by up to 61 percent.

Why Does it Work?

Plant-based diets are often lower in fat and contain different kinds of fat than diets with animal products. For example, many whole plant foods have an optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. Healthful weight loss from eating a vegan diet is also anti-inflammatory, further helping cool irritated joints.

Here's how to get started with pain-safe foods. For two weeks:

  1. Enjoy an abundance of foods from the pain-safe list.
  2. Avoid the common triggers completely.
  3. Foods that are not on either list can be eaten freely.

If your diet change makes your pain disappear or improve, the next step is to find out which foods are your triggers. To do this, simply reintroduce the eliminated foods one at a time, every two days, to see whether any symptoms result.

Pain-Safe Foods

Pain-safe foods virtually never contribute to arthritis, headaches, or other painful conditions. These include:

  • Rice 
  • Cooked Green Vegetables 
  • Cooked Orange Vegetables 
  • Cooked Yellow Vegetables 
  • Cooked or Dried Non-Citrus Fruits 

Common Pain Triggers

Common triggers often cause pain in susceptible people. Certain drinks and additives are also common triggers, including alcoholic beverages (especially red wine), caffeinated drinks (coffee, tea, and colas), monosodium glutamate, aspartame (NutraSweet), and nitrites. Here are the common food triggers, also known as the "Dirty Dozen":

  • Dairy
  • Chocolate
  • Eggs
  • Citrus Fruits
  • Meat
  • Wheat
  • Nuts and Peanuts
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Corn
  • Apples
  • Bananas

Foods and Arthritis Fact Sheet