7 Foods To Eat And 7 To Avoid For Arthritis

If you think arthritis is something you won't have to worry about until you're much older, think again. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 54 million Americans are affected by arthritis, and 60 percent of them are between the ages of 18 to 64. In fact, arthritis is a leading cause of disability, with 8 million adults unable to work because of their arthritis.

While many often think of arthritis as a single condition, it's actually an umbrella term for a number of conditions affecting the joints. The most common forms include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout. According to the CDC, "symptoms of arthritis are pain, aching, stiffness, and swelling in or around the joints." While symptoms can vary from person to person and day to day, one in four Americans with arthritis experiences severe joint pain. Arthritis often goes hand in hand with other chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes and can make these conditions harder to manage.

Arthritis has many different causes and just as many options for managing symptoms. Diet can play a major role in either minimizing or exacerbating symptoms, so if you have some form of arthritis, it's important to choose the foods and beverages you consume wisely.

Broccoli could slow osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is considered a "wear and tear" condition. Over time, the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in a joint wears away, causing bones to rub against one another, leading to pain, stiffness, and inflammation. This can happen simply as a result of getting older or because of injuries or repeated stress on the joint. Women, heavier individuals, and people with certain genetic factors are also more likely to get osteoarthritis. While any joint can be affected, the knees, hips, spine, and hands are most vulnerable to cartilage damage (via Mayo Clinic).

According to a 2013 article published in Science Direct, research suggests that sulforaphane, a compound released when eating broccoli, can slow down the destruction of cartilage in joints. Sulforaphane is present in other cruciferous vegetables as well, including Brussels sprouts and cabbage, but is particularly concentrated in broccoli. This compound "blocks the enzymes that cause joint destruction by stopping a key molecule known to cause inflammation." Although these effects were demonstrated in both laboratory-grown tissues and in mice, the results are promising for humans.

Stay away from MSG if you have osteoarthritis

According to a 2020 paper published in Medicine and Pharmacy Reports, oxidative stress plays a big role in osteoarthritis. Oxidative stress occurs when there's an imbalance between pro-inflammatory molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) and anti-inflammatory antioxidants in the body. In the case of osteoarthritis, ROS builds up in the cartilage and fluid surrounding joints, causing damage on a cellular level.

It makes sense, then, to stay away from anything that encourages oxidative stress. In a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Medical Research and Pharmaceutical Sciences, researchers found that monosodium glutamate (MSG) promoted oxidative stress in the cartilage of rats, causing it to break down at a much faster rate. Although the experiment was on rodents, the study authors theorized that MSG could speed up the progression of osteoarthritis in humans.

According to Healthline, MSG is a highly controversial food additive used to enhance flavor. Although commonly associated with Chinese takeout, it's found in a lot of processed foods, including chips, frozen meals, soups, and condiments. Although considered safe to use by the FDA, MSG has been blamed for increasing the risk for obesity, liver damage, heart disease, and nerve damage in animal studies.

To manage osteoarthritis, sip green tea

Whether you already have osteoarthritis or are trying to keep your joints supple as long as possible, you may want to ditch your morning cup of coffee for a cup of green tea. According to a 2011 paper published in Arthritis Research & Therapy, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol (plant compound) found in green tea, has powerful anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent or better manage osteoarthritis.

The authors theorized that green tea could be used alongside drugs prescribed to manage arthritis, either increasing the drugs' effectiveness or allowing patients to get the same results with a lower dosage. These conclusions, however, are based on studies involving mice, so more research on humans is needed. There may also be other polyphenols in green tea that work together with EGCG to help fight joint inflammation.

Green tea has a number of other scientifically backed health benefits, so drinking it for help with osteoarthritis could lead to other positive changes. The combination of caffeine and potent plant compounds in green tea has been linked to improved brain function, increased fat burning, as well as decreased risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (via Healthline).

Ditch the coconut oil if you have osteoarthritis

The type of fat you consume can make a big difference in how you feel when you have osteoarthritis. In a study published in 2018 in Arthritis Care & Research, researchers followed over 2,000 individuals with moderate to severe knee osteoarthritis for four years. Participants filled out a questionnaire about their eating habits and the researchers took X-rays of their knees at yearly intervals to measure the amount of space in their knee joints (an objective way to measure the progression of their arthritis).

In the end, the study authors found that higher levels of total fat and saturated fat intake were associated with greater losses in joint space, while those who ate more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats didn't lose as much space in their joints. Those who ate the least amount of saturated fat lost only 0.25 millimeters of space in their knee joint, while those who ate the most saturated fat lost 0.37 millimeters.

While you probably know that meat and dairy products are high in saturated fat, you might not realize that coconut oil is as well. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated (via the Harvard School of Public Health).

To prevent osteoarthritis, add more olive oil to your diet

When it comes to arthritis-proofing your diet, extra-virgin olive oil is an excellent choice. It's full of monounsaturated fatty acids, which, according to a study published in 2018 in Arthritis Care & Research, help reduce the loss of joint space over time in arthritic knees. Olive oil is also high in anti-inflammatory plant compounds that may reduce inflammation and slow or prevent osteoarthritis.

In a 2013 study published in The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, researchers explained that lubricin is a substance produced in joints that helps lubricate and protect cartilage. When a joint is injured or repeatedly stressed, the body releases immune molecules called cytokines. Cytokines are inflammatory and suppress the production of lubricin. The researchers found that olive oil, in combination with physical activity, helped reduce cytokine levels and increase lubricin levels in rats with injured knees. They concluded that eating a diet rich in olive oil could prevent osteoarthritis in humans by safeguarding cartilage from inflammation.

In addition to fighting osteoarthritis, olive oil may reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer (via Healthline).

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, keep your salt intake down

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is another form of joint disease that can leave people feeling stiff and achy. RA is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system mistakenly begins attacking the synovium, the lining of the membranes that surround the joints.

As the Mayo Clinic explained, "The resulting inflammation thickens the synovium, which can eventually destroy the cartilage and bone within the joint. The tendons and ligaments that hold the joint together weaken and stretch. Gradually, the joint loses its shape and alignment." The condition can also damage other parts of the body, such as the skin, lungs, and heart.

According to the Arthritis Foundation, people with RA may be more sensitive to the negative health effects of sodium, like high blood pressure. Corticosteroids, medications often used to manage RA, can cause the body to hold on to sodium. Because of this, those with RA are cautioned to keep their daily sodium intake below 1,500 milligrams. For comparison, the general suggestion for adults in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium. The average American, however, eats more than 3,400 milligrams daily (via FDA).

Alcohol in moderation may be helpful for those with this type of rheumatoid arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a drink or two a day could help relieve symptoms. A paper published in Rheumatology in 2013 found that alcohol intake was inversely related to ACPA-positive RA, one type of RA, implying that it may have a protective effect. Interestingly, alcohol had no impact on ACPA-negative RA.

While the researchers didn't focus on one particular type of alcohol, red wine may be particularly beneficial. As Dr. Halyna Kuzyshyn explained in an interview with Hackensack Meridian Health, the plant compound resveratrol in red wine has anti-inflammatory properties that could be helpful. However, alcohol is a double-edged sword. 

Dr. Kuzyshyn noted that alcohol itself is inflammatory and could worsen medication-induced liver damage from taking certain RA medications. Moderation is key. According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women should consume no more than one standard drink a day, while men should limit themselves to no more than two. A "standard drink" is equivalent to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, avoid soda and other sugary beverages

Add rheumatoid arthritis (RA) to the long list of conditions that are made more difficult to manage by eating a diet high in added sugar. In a 2018 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, researchers polled 217 individuals with RA about the ways 20 common foods affected their RA symptoms. Sugar-sweetened soda was the most troublesome food, with 12.7 percent of respondents saying it worsened their symptoms. Desserts came in as a close second, with 12.4 percent of respondents linking sweet treats to RA flare-ups.

Another study, published in 2014 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, tried to determine if drinking sugar-sweetened soda increased risk for developing RA in women. They followed nearly 187,000 women for an average of 18 years. The researchers found that women who consumed one or more sugary sodas a day had a 63 percent increased risk for developing seropositive RA. This is the most common type of RA, in which a blood test detects antibodies the immune system produces against body tissue (via WebMD). Soda consumption appeared to have no impact on potential for developing seronegative RA, the other main form of RA in which antibodies can't be detected but an individual still has RA symptoms.

Load up on omega-3-rich fish to combat rheumatoid arthritis symptoms

While saturated fats are bad news for rheumatoid arthritis, the omega-3 polyunsaturated fats found in fatty fish may help with the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

A 2020 paper published in the Mediterranean Journal of Rheumatology concluded that omega-3 fatty acids may prevent or slow the progression of RA because of their anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3s limit the activity of cytokines, an immune system molecule that plays a major role in inflammation. By reducing cytokine activity, omega-3s can help keep symptoms like stiff, aching joints at bay.

Certain species of oily cold-water fish are the best sources of omega-3s, particularly EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). According to Seafood Health Facts, most health experts suggest individuals aim for a combined 250 to 500 milligrams of EPA and DHA daily, although those with certain conditions, such as heart disease or rheumatoid arthritis, may need more. Certain types of herring, salmon, and mackerel are the best options, with more than 1,500 milligrams of EPA and DHA per serving. Tuna and swordfish are also good choices, offering at least 500 milligrams.

If you have gout, avoid certain kinds of seafood

According to the Mayo Clinic, gout is a type of arthritis marked by sudden and severe pain in a particular joint, often the big toe. Gout is caused by "needlelike" urate crystals that form in joints or the surrounding tissue. Urate crystals are made of uric acid, a byproduct of breaking down substances called purines, found in varying amounts within a number of foods. Uric acid can build up and create urate crystals in people who produce too much uric acid or whose kidneys have a hard time getting rid of the uric acid.

Certain foods, including some types of seafood, are particularly high in purines. According to Elevated Health, a family medicine clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona, sardines in oil contain enough purines to produce 480 milligrams of uric acid per 100-gram serving. Smoked sprat (a type of fish similar to a sardine or anchovy) is an even bigger offender, producing 804 milligrams of uric acid per 100-gram serving.

Many other fish are considered moderately high in purines, producing between 100 too 400 milligrams of uric acid per 100-gram serving. These include redfish, anchovies, and trout. Lobster, shrimp, mussels, and scallops are also moderately high in purines.

If you have gout, opt for wine instead of beer

Historically, gout was often associated with overindulgent royalty who ate huge, lavish feasts full of meat and alcohol (via Forbes). But, as it turns out, not all alcohol is created equal when it comes to purine content.

According to a 2014 study published in PLoS One, wine has significantly less impact on levels of uric acid in the blood when compared to beer. Researchers followed 589 healthy individuals between the ages of 18 and 65 to see how different types of alcohol consumption affected their uric acid levels. While the researchers were looking specifically at the presence of high levels of uric acid in the blood as a predictor for a condition known as metabolic syndrome, they acknowledged that uric acid levels also directly correlate to gout flare-ups.

The study authors noted that alcohol is innately hyperuricemic, meaning it raises uric acid levels in the blood. Beer, specifically, is very high in purines, creating a double whammy effect on uric acid levels. Wine, on the other hand, is low in purines and contains plant compounds called polyphenols that appear to counteract the hyperuricemic effects of alcohol. In fact, study participants who consumed wine experienced no change in their uric acid levels.

Steer clear of organ meats to avoid gout flare-ups

If you're an adventurous eater who's prone to gout, you'll probably want to steer clear of organ meats. Most organ meats are considered high-purine foods. A 100-gram serving of calf's liver, for instance, contains enough purines to produce 460 milligrams of uric acid, while the thymus gland of a calf (known in the culinary world as "sweetbread") has a staggering 1,260 milligrams (via Elevated Health).

In general, livers and spleens of different animals top the list of purine-containing foods. But a number of other organs are considered moderately high in purines. These include chicken livers, calf and pig kidneys, and calf and ox lungs. If you struggle with gout but don't want to give up organ meat, try cervelle de veau (calf brain), which contains fewer than 100 milligrams of uric acid per 100-gram serving and is considered low in purines, per Elevated Health.

While it may be hard to find and even harder to convince yourself to try, this organ meat is quite nutritious. According to Medical News Today, they contain omega-3 fats and nutrients known as phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine, which play an important role in the health of the nervous system.

Drink plenty of water, especially if you're having a gout flare-up

Water is essential for life, and particularly critical for managing a gout flare-up. According to the Arthritis Foundation, individuals with a history of gout should generally aim to drink eight 8-ounce glasses a day for good health, but should up that amount to 16 glasses a day if having a flare. The increased fluids help the kidneys flush uric acid from the body.

Medpage Today reported on research conducted by Dr. Tuhina Neogi regarding the connection between hydration and gout attacks. Through the use of an online survey, Dr. Neogi found that those who drank more than eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day had a 48 percent reduction in gout symptoms compared to those who drank only one glass of water daily. Those who drank five to eight glasses of water daily had a 43 percent reduction in risk, while those who drank two to four glasses reduced their risk by 18 percent. 

Examining the results, Dr. Neogi concluded, "This suggests that dehydration may indeed be an important trigger for gout attacks, and that persons with gout should consider ensuring adequate water intake in addition to appropriate medical management as directed by their physician."

If you have gout, avoid excessive amounts of meat

Meat is full of protein, vitamins, and minerals, but you should keep your carnivorous impulses in check if you have gout. According to Elevated Health, almost all beef, pork, lamb, and chicken is moderately high in purines, meaning it contains enough to produce 100 to 400 milligrams of uric acid in a 100-gram serving. A bone-in pork chop, for example, has 145 milligrams, while a beef chuck roast has 120 milligrams.

Although chicken is often considered a lighter, healthier option than beef or pork, that's not the case when it comes to purines. A 100-gram serving of chicken breast with skin contains 175 milligrams or uric acid. While you don't need to avoid these foods completely, it's important to consume them in moderation if you're prone to gout.

Even if you don't have gout, you may want to minimize the amount of purines you consume. As WebMD explained, the large amount of uric acid that's produced from excessive purine consumption may increase risk for diabetes and kidney stones.