According to the NHS, around 10 million people in the UK are currently living with arthritis. Although the condition can affect people of all ages, those aged 50 and over are more at risk.
There’s currently n cure for arthritis, but research shows that lifestyle changes – such as getting enough essential vitamins and minerals – may help to slow its development and ease symptoms.
With this in mind, we’ve come up with a list of seven diet tips that might help if you or a loved one is living with arthritis.
What is arthritis?
There are various forms of arthritis but, generally speaking, it’s a condition that causes pain and inflammation in joints.
The two most common types of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. We’ll cover these below…
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis – affecting close to eight million people in the UK alone. The condition occurs when cartilage (the flexible tissue that cushions joints and reduces friction) begins to wear away.
The exact cause of osteoarthritis isn’t known, but it’s considered to be a ‘wear and tear’ condition. This means that cartilage is worn down gradually over time through general use. Factors including joint injury, age, weight, and whether or not you have any other related conditions (like gout and diabetes), are also thought to factor in.
Osteoarthritis typically leads to pain, inflammation, and the formation of bone spurs (or osteophytes), which are lumps that grow on the bone near joints or on the spine. People suffering from osteoarthritis also tend to experience stiffness and limited mobility.
While osteoarthritis is considered to be a ‘wear and tear’ condition, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. This means that the immune system mistakes the cells in the affected joints for foreign cells and attacks them.
Like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis can lead to pain, swelling, stiffness, and the formation of bone spurs – as well as various other symptoms like tiredness and weight loss.
Rheumatoid arthritis is less common than osteoarthritis, though it’s still estimated to affect around 400,000 people in the UK.
How can diet affect the symptoms and development of arthritis?
We all know that eating a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health and lowering our risk of developing various conditions like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Science also suggests that diet may play a role in the severity of arthritis symptoms and have the potential to slow its progress – possibly even reducing the likelihood of developing it in the first place.
There are a few reasons for this. For example, research shows that being overweight is a significant risk factor for developing osteoarthritis (particularly in the knees). This is because the heavier we are, the more stress we put on our joints, and the more likely the cartilage is to wear down.
Studies have also revealed that weight loss is associated with slower cartilage degeneration in patients with osteoarthritis, and lower uric acid levels in people suffering from gout (higher levels of uric acid increase the likelihood of gout flaring up). Therefore, maintaining a healthy weight may help to slow the development of arthritis and reduce symptoms.
Some vitamins and minerals are also thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help ease some of the symptoms of arthritis. This is significant, as whether due to specific treatments or limited mobility, people living with arthritis can be more prone to becoming deficient in specific vitamin and mineral deficiencies – so making sure you’re filling these gaps is important.
7 diet tips for people living with arthritis
1. Make sure you're getting enough omega-3s
Omega-3s are essential fatty acids that play a key role in a number of body processes.
Many consider the best sources of omega-3s to be oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon, sardines, and trout. These are great for people living with arthritis, in part, because they also contain plenty of vitamin D (which we’ll get onto later).
Although, if you don’t like the taste of fish or you follow a plant-based diet, seeds (like flax and chia), nuts (like pecans and hazelnuts), and soya beans are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
It’s best to try getting your daily dose of omega-3s from food because they’re often easier to absorb than supplements and contain a whole range of healthy nutrients.
However, if you’re struggling to get enough omega-3s into your diet, you can buy fish oil and fish liver oil supplements from health food shops and online retailers. That said, it’s always best to speak to your GP before taking supplements of any kind, as they won’t be suitable for everyone.
To find out more about omega-3s and how you can incorporate them into your diet, why not read our complete guide?
2. Consider whether you’re eating enough calcium-rich foods
If you’re living with arthritis, it’s important to consider how you can reduce the risk of developing other associated conditions, like osteoporosis. Osteoporosis is a condition that causes our bones to become brittle, and it’s common for people with arthritis to also suffer from it.
The two conditions are linked because arthritis can cause pain and loss of joint function, which can reduce activity levels and increase the risk of developing osteoporosis. Some steroid drugs used to treat arthritis can also increase risk.
As a result, it’s important to take care of your bone health – and one of the best ways to do this is to make sure you have enough calcium in your diet (the NHS recommends 700mg a day).
Calcium is needed to build and maintain healthy bones, and also helps muscles, nerves, and cells to work normally.
Some great sources of calcium are…
- Dairy foods like milk and cheese
- Milk alternatives with added calcium, such as soya milk
- Tofu (some have added calcium)
- Nuts, particularly almonds
- Leafy green vegetables like okra, cabbage, and kale. Spinach, on the other hand, does contain high levels of calcium, but because it contains high levels of oxalate (a chemical that interferes with our ability to absorb calcium), we can’t absorb as much calcium from it.
To find out more, you might like to check out our article; Everything you need to know about calcium.
3. Remember to get your daily dose of vitamin D
Vitamin D is also important for bone health because it helps the body absorb calcium and store it in skeletal tissue. Low levels of vitamin D can lead to brittle bones and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Research also suggests that a vitamin D deficiency may increase our chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis or cause both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis to develop more quickly.
Plus, vitamin D plays a key role in regulating our immune system, so making sure we have enough will help our body to better fight off a range of diseases and conditions.
Vitamin D is known as the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because our skin produces it when it comes into contact with the sun’s UV rays. According to the NHS, most people in the UK get enough vitamin D (10mcg) from sunlight alone from April to September.
However, during the colder months (October to March), this isn’t always the case – so the NHS recommends that we consider taking supplements or upping the amount of vitamin D in our diet.
Sources of vitamin D include oily fish like mackerel, sardines, and salmon; and mushrooms and vitamin-D-fortified foods are great plant-based options too.
To find out more about vitamin D and how you can get the right amount, why not take a look at our complete guide below?
4. Make sure you're enough iron
Iron is an essential nutrient because it’s used to make haemoglobin, which is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the body. Our bodies convert oxygen into energy, so if we don’t get enough, we may feel weak and tired.
Despite the importance of iron, it’s the most common nutrient deficiency in the world and, unfortunately, it’s especially common in people with arthritis.
Research has shown that this is in part due to the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), which are typically used to manage the symptoms of various forms of arthritis.
NSAIDs are known to cause bleeding and stomach ulcers. This loss of blood can lead to iron-deficiency anaemia, which can cause symptoms like tiredness, shortness of breath, pale skin, and heart palpitations.
To help prevent iron deficiency anaemia, it’s important to include lots of good sources of iron in your diet. Examples include…
- Red meat, poultry (especially the darker parts, like the thigh), and pork
- Seafood (especially oily fish)
- Beans and pulses
Dark green leafy vegetables, such as spinach
- Dried fruits like apricots and raisins
- Supplements – though it’s important to always speak to your GP first.
For more information on iron, iron deficiency, and how you can get more of it into your daily diet, you might like to have a read of our article below.
5. Take steps to cut back on added sugar
Eating too much sugar can lead to weight gain, tooth decay, and increase your risk of developing conditions like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. It can exacerbate the symptoms of arthritis too.
In this study, many sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis claimed that sugary foods caused arthritis flare ups. Additional research has also found that eating a diet high in excess processed sugar can cause our bodies to produce cytokines (inflammatory proteins), which may make inflammation worse.
Therefore, if you have arthritis, it’s worth cutting back on the amount of sugar in your diet. By this, we mean added sugars – not healthy sugars, like those found in whole fruits and vegetables. Added sugars are found in many processed foods and drinks like biscuits, sweets, chocolate, and fizzy soft drinks
Free sugars are called so because they aren’t contained inside the cells of the food we eat – unlike the sugar found in fruit, vegetables, and milk, which comes with other nutrients and is generally believed not to negatively impact health.
The NHS recommends that added sugar shouldn’t make up any more than 5% of daily calories – the equivalent of 30g of free sugars.
For tips and ideas on how you reduce your intake of added sugar, check out our article; 9 simple ways to cut back on added sugar.
6. Consider adding turmeric to your diet
Earthy and spicy, turmeric has been used in South Asian cuisine for centuries. But did you know that it’s also considered to have medicinal properties? In India, the golden-coloured spice was traditionally used to treat things like skin disorders and digestive issues.
In recent years, because it contains a substance called curcumin (which is thought to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties), some evidence suggests it could be beneficial for treating arthritis symptoms.
This study, which compared the effectiveness of turmeric to a commonly used anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, found that the spice from the ginger family had similar efficacy in relieving symptoms of osteoarthritis. Research also suggests that curcumin could be an effective and safe form of treatment for rheumatoid arthritis.
Turmeric can either be added to your diet through food (these turmeric recipes will show you how), as a tea, or you can take it as a supplement. But remember, if you’re thinking about taking supplements, it’s important to speak to your GP first.
Note: The research conducted into whether or not turmeric is a safe and effective treatment for arthritis is limited. It’s not listed as an arthritis treatment by the NHS. So if you’re considering taking turmeric specifically with the intention to treat your arthritis, it’s important to seek advice from your GP beforehand.
7. Give the Mediterranean diet a go
The Mediterranean diet is a style of eating based on the traditional diets of Mediterranean countries like Spain, Greece, and Italy. It includes lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, grains, and unsaturated fats – for example, olive oil. Seafood (including oily fish), dairy, and poultry are also included, but only in moderation.
Experts have known for a while that following the Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and increase life expectancy. Recently, research has also found that it could be beneficial for people living with rheumatoid arthritis.
This study of people living with rheumatoid arthritis found that eating the Mediterranean diet for three months reduced inflammation and improved joint function. This is thought to be partly due to the high level of carotenoids (antioxidants that experts believe can reduce inflammation in the body).
Carotenoids are pigments that produce bright colours like yellow, orange, and red in fruits and vegetables. Peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes are examples of foods that are high in carotenoids. So even if you don’t want to commit fully to the Mediterranean diet, making sure your diet is rich in colourful veg is generally a good idea.
To find out more about the Mediterranean diet, including its other health benefits and how to incorporate it into your life, why not check out our article below?
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is important for our overall health and wellbeing. However, it can be especially important for those who live with chronic conditions such as arthritis.
As we’ve discussed, making sure we get all of the vitamins and minerals that our body needs and maintaining a healthy weight can help to reduce symptoms of arthritis – and, in some cases, play a role in whether or not we develop it in the first place.
It’s worth mentioning that a healthy diet alone isn’t a substitute for the various other arthritis treatments that may be available to you. But, even if you find that these tips don’t have an effect on easing the symptoms of arthritis, they can still work together to help keep you healthy and energised.
For more tips on how to eat a healthy balanced diet, why not head on over to the diet and nutrition section of our website? You might also like to check out our article; 9 tips for sleeping better with arthritis.