Reduce Arthritis Pain With a Plant-Based Diet
Research shows that foods can play a substantial role in arthritis.
Arthritis is a group of diseases that cause painful and swollen joints. Arthritis is one of the most common health conditions in the United States, affecting approximately one in four adults. 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.
While genetic factors are important, studies show that lifestyle factors, including diet, play a role. 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. To figure out your trigger foods, see our elimination diet plan below.
Which foods can help? A low-fat vegan diet, without calorie restrictions, improves joint pain in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Physicians Committee and published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
Another randomized clinical trial that looked at the effects of a low-fat plant-based diet on people with moderate-to-severe RA found that after just four weeks on the diet, participants experienced significant improvements in morning stiffness, RA pain, joint tenderness, and joint swelling.
Why does it work? Plant-based diets are typically low in fat and high in fiber, which can reduce inflammation and decrease pain and swelling. Plant-based diets are associated with a lower BMI. Studies show that excess body weight increases the risk for developing RA and decreases the likelihood of remission if RA is already present. A 2018 analysis found that RA patients who lost more than 5 kilograms of body weight were three times more likely to experience improvements than those who lost less than 5 kilograms.
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%.
Try the Four-Week Anti-Arthritis Diet
Here's how to get started on the Four-Week Anti-Arthritis Diet. For four weeks:
- Enjoy an abundance of foods from the pain-safe list.
- Avoid common triggers completely.
- Foods that are not on either list can be eaten freely.
You may start feeling better earlier than four weeks, but it often takes at least four weeks for chronically inflamed joints to begin cooling down.
After four weeks, if your symptoms have improved or disappeared, the next step is to nail down which one or more of the trigger foods caused your problem. Simply reintroduce the foods you have eliminated back into your diet one at a time, every two days.
Have a generous amount of each newly reintroduced food, and note if your joints flare up again. If so, eliminate the food that seems to have caused the problem, and let your joints cool down again. Then continue to reintroduce the other foods. Wait at least two weeks before trying a problem food a second time. Many people have more than one food trigger.
Pain-safe foods virtually never contribute to arthritis, headaches, or other painful conditions. These include:
- 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":
- Citrus Fruits
- Nuts and Peanuts
After four weeks on the elimination diet, you may find that a plant-based diet is the key to remaining pain free.
Arthritis does not have to be a one-way street. For many people it responds remarkably well to a change in the menu. The pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints can improve or even go away.
Neal Barnard, MD, FACC, President, Physicians Committee
Vegan Diet Healed Jane’s Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms