Some people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) choose to limit or eliminate certain foods from their diets to reduce inflammation. One ingredient that your health care provider may recommend you avoid when living with inflammatory arthritis is sugar. From aggravating RA symptoms and inflammation to increasing your risk for other complications or health issues, too much sugar or sugar substitutes can make life with RA even more difficult.
Here are three reasons why you should consider limiting your sugar intake as part of your RA care plan. As always, ask your rheumatologist or a health care provider for medical advice before making dietary changes. They can advise you on the best way to do so or refer you to a specialist, such as a registered dietitian, for further guidance.
RA is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. There is some evidence that increased sugar consumption can lead to an increase in joint inflammation for those with RA. The theory is that the digestion of sugars and refined carbohydrates releases pro-inflammatory cytokines, or substances in the body that can cause inflammation. For those with RA, consuming excess sugar can lead to worse RA symptoms, such as joint pain and stiffness.
Some people with RA find that sugars and refined carbohydrates trigger their symptoms. One myRAteam member reported that they avoid sugary foods because they cause “dramatically increased pain and stiffness all over.”
Another member wrote, “Eating sugar and starch is my number one enemy.” Another echoed the sentiment: “Sugar is not good for my arthritis, I have decided.”
Too much sugar in one’s diet can significantly increase their risk for cardiovascular disease (heart disease). According to a 15-year study, those who consumed 17 percent to 21 percent of their calories from sugar had a 38 percent higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who consumed less sugar. This is especially important to keep in mind when living with RA: People with the condition develop heart disease at nearly twice the rate as compared to those without it.
RA can also negatively impact the heart and blood vessels. In addition to the joints, chronic inflammation damages the heart, blood vessels, and other parts of the body in approximately 40 percent of RA cases. Reducing your sugar consumption can help both lower your risk of developing heart disease and decrease inflammation that can lead to cardiovascular problems.
While scientists are unsure about the exact connection between RA and type 2 diabetes, evidence points to a correlation between the two.
The Arthritis Foundation notes that when someone has RA, their body often releases too much tumor necrosis factor (TNF). In small doses, TNF can help the body fight off infection and heal wounds. However, too much TNF can cause inflammation, joint damage, and cell damage. It can also make the body more resistant to insulin, which can lead to diabetes.
What does this have to do with sugar? Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas doesn’t make enough insulin (the hormone that helps your cells convert the sugar in foods to energy) and the body’s cells don’t respond properly to insulin. This causes a buildup of sugar in the blood and high blood sugar levels.
If your diet has too many added sugars, you are at a greater risk for type 2 diabetes — especially if you are overweight or living with obesity, have an unhealthy diet, or do not live an active lifestyle. Corticosteroids, a common RA treatment, can also raise blood sugar and alter sugar metabolism. Joint pain, inflammation, and other RA symptoms can make those with RA less active — and at higher risk for complications like diabetes.
Reducing your sugar intake may help your RA symptoms and decrease your risk of complications and related conditions. Since sugar and added sugars are commonly found in many foods in the American diet, it can be difficult to reduce your intake.
Learning your daily sugar intake is a good first step in reducing your sugar consumption. You don’t need to cut all sugar from your diet at once. Slowly reduce the amount of sugar you eat over time, and observe any changes in your RA symptoms, mood, and energy levels.
When reading food labels, avoid foods with corn syrup, glucose, fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and other ingredients ending in “-ose.” If sugar is one of the first three ingredients in a food product, it’s likely that product contains a lot of sugar.
This is also important for drinks. Sodas contain as much as 16 teaspoons of sugar in one serving. Specialty coffee drinks like flavored lattes are high in both sugar and calories, and fruit juices can contain as much sugar as sodas. You should also avoid sugary alcoholic drinks, like sweet wines and mixed beverages.
It’s important to note that some sugar substitutes can be just as harmful as sugar for inflammation. Products that are marketed as “sugar-free” often contain aspartame — an artificial sweetener that may worsen RA symptoms like inflammation.
“Low-fat” foods can also be misleading. These foods usually contain fewer calories but more sugar than full-fat versions. Food manufacturers will often add sugar to low-fat foods to add flavor.
Trans fats, which are common in processed foods, also trigger inflammation and should be avoided. Read nutrition labels and opt for full-fat foods to help you stay away from unnecessary sugars. Adding nutritious foods that contain vitamins and antioxidants to your diet will potentially help your RA, strengthen your immune system, and improve your overall health and wellness.
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult, but it’s not a journey you have to take alone. On myRAteam, you’ll find a community of supportive individuals who understand what it’s like to live with RA. Here, you can share your story, ask and answer questions, and connect with more than 192,000 members from around the world.
Do you find that sugar affects your RA? How do you cut back on sugar while living with RA? Share your tips in the comments below or by posting on myRAteam.