An anti-inflammatory diet is technically any diet that reduces inflammation in the body. The most popular forms of these diets are the Mediterranean diet, a high-fiber diet, and a vegan diet.
Inflammation occurs in acute and chronic forms. When we get sick, our body responds with short-term (or acute) inflammation to fight off the infection. This is a normal and healthy response. Long-term, chronic inflammation is linked with several diseases including rheumatoid arthritis (RA), diabetes, heart disease, and more.
There are several causes of chronic inflammation. Common culprits include stress, inconsistent sleep, poor diet quality, and autoimmune diseases. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation and attacks the joints. In individuals with RA, inflammation can contribute to adverse effects, such as swelling, joint pain, and fatigue.
There is no conclusive research that a specific diet can prevent, cure, or improve the symptoms of RA, but eating certain foods associated with an anti-inflammatory diet may help. Many myRAteam members have reported following an anti-inflammatory diet as they seek to manage their condition. “Started the Mediterranean diet on Monday, hoping for relief!!!” one member posted. “I too have been paying close attention to the anti-inflammatory food list,” shared another.
Foods and nutrients that have proven anti-inflammatory effects on the body include omega-3 fatty acids, spices like turmeric, antioxidants, whole grains, and more. These nutrients are present in the Mediterranean diet, which is the diet most correlated with an anti-inflammatory eating style. The Mediterranean diet is a healthy diet option for most people, especially those suffering with autoimmune diseases.
A Mediterranean diet is rich in oleic acid, omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, and phytochemicals. The diet contains high amounts of olive oil, fish, legumes, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It limits red meat and refined grains, and it includes moderate consumption of red wine. The Mediterranean diet is linked with reduced rates of vascular inflammation, oxidative stress, and several chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, metabolic disease, and heart disease.
There are key nutrients in the Mediterranean diet that may specifically improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Studies have suggested that olive oil can reduce the risk or progression of RA. Extra virgin olive oil has been linked to reduced levels of cartilage damage and joint damage. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fatty acid proven to decrease the risk of heart disease and to lower LDL cholesterol (the “bad kind” of cholesterol).
Dietary fiber remains one of the most influential foods for the prevention and management of inflammation. Fiber is also beneficial for healthy weight, blood sugar control, cholesterol management, and a healthy gut microbiome. Some studies have found relationships between dietary fiber intake and the inflammatory biomarkers that indicate rheumatoid arthritis, but other studies have found contradictory reports. Despite no conclusive evidence supporting a relationship between fiber intake and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration still approves claims of fiber being beneficial for health. Fiber is considered a prebiotic, which promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome. A healthy gut microbiome is related to decreased risk of chronic disease and inflammation.
It’s hard to think of an anti-inflammatory diet without antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that prevent or delay cell damage. Antioxidants tend to be associated with phytochemicals and flavonoids, which are two other components of an anti-inflammatory diet. Phytochemicals and flavonoids are compounds found in plant-based foods that fight free radical damage and decrease inflammation. Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains is an easy way to ensure you are getting enough antioxidants, phytochemicals, and flavonoids. Try to eat five servings of vegetables per day and two or three servings of fruits per day.
Turmeric, ginger, and black pepper have antioxidant properties that may decrease inflammation. These are spices that can be used while cooking vegetables, soups, stews, smoothies, and more. Green tea contains polyphenols and antioxidants called catechins. Some research suggests that catechins may disrupt the process that causes inflammation and arthritis. Substituting green tea for coffee may provide beneficial effects.
Omega-3 fatty acids are an important component of an anti-inflammatory diet. They come in three different forms: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). ALA cannot be made by the body, so it is crucial to obtain it from the diet. It is found in chia seeds, flaxseed, soybeans, and canola oil.
Studies have found that people with RA who take omega-3 supplements may require less pain relief medication. Remember to always consult your physician before starting a new supplement to ensure it does not interact with any other medications. Getting omega-3 fatty acids in your diet can be made easier by adding chia seeds and flaxseed meal to oatmeal and smoothies. It is recommended to consume two servings of fatty fish per week, as well.
Several foods can contribute to inflammation. Research on alcohol consumption is mixed — some studies suggest alcohol may lead to the progression of rheumatoid arthritis, but other studies have not concluded a statistically relevant relationship.
Saturated fat and trans fats are two culprits of inflammation. Saturated fat is found in red meat and processed meat, as well as full-fat dairy products. Trans fats are found in baked goods, fried foods, and some shelf-stable or frozen products. It is important to always read nutrition labels, and steer clear of products with hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup listed as ingredients. Fried foods should be eliminated or avoided. Dairy should be limited to no more than three servings per day.
Refined grains and added sugar are two more contributors to inflammation. These spike blood sugar levels, leading to increased production of insulin. Sodium should also be avoided, as studies have linked high intake of salt with arthritis. Use herbs and spices, which have healthy components, instead of salt to flavor dishes.
Before starting an anti-inflammatory diet, it might be a good idea to do a pantry sweep. Discard anything that lists trans fats or saturated fat in the ingredients on the nutrition label. This includes the phrase “hydrogenated oil.” Avoid all products that contain high fructose corn syrup. Common culprits are snacks like crackers, dressings, marinades, and other packaged goods.
See what "The Arthritis Foodie" Emily Johnson says about sticking to an anti-inflammatory diet on a budget.
After a pantry sweep, it’s time to fill your kitchen with healthy, anti-inflammatory foods. Here are some staples to include on your grocery list to follow a Mediterranean diet:
Be sure to include plenty of fresh or frozen vegetables on your shopping list. You really can’t go wrong in this department. When choosing frozen vegetables, steer clear of items that include sauces, salt, and other additives.
Fruit is another healthy source of fiber and antioxidants, but it should be eaten in moderation like most foods. Most Americans only need two or three servings of fruit per day, due to its high carbohydrate content. Look for the smallest fruits you can buy when it comes to options like apples, peaches, pears, and oranges. Berries, like blueberries or strawberries, tend to yield a larger serving size for a smaller calorie and carbohydrate content. They are also higher in fiber than most fruits.
An important component of healthy eating is to make a plan each week. Use a notepad or journal to organize meals, and focus on one meal per week to get started. This can help prevent feeling overwhelmed. For example, one week you could make egg white muffins for breakfast and stick with your normal lunch and dinner recipes. This recipe helps you get a serving of vegetables in with breakfast to boost fiber and antioxidant intake. The following week, incorporate a new fish recipe for dinner — such as this salmon. From there, try getting into the habit of preparing salads for lunches that are full of vegetables to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits. This recipe is a unique way to enjoy a Mediterranean salad without too much work.
Some myRAteam members have reported positive results from changing their diets. “Changed back to my anti-acid anti-inflammatory diet on Tuesday. Pain in hands is gone and my body is feeling good again,” one member reported. “Today is a good day. I've been eating really healthy today and trying to include anti-inflammatory foods and spices,” another shared.
It is important to understand that the scientific evidence on an anti-inflammatory diet for rheumatoid arthritis is scarce. Nonetheless, the benefits of an anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean diet are known to reduce inflammation in the body, which may help with symptoms and progression of RA.
Have you tried an anti-inflammatory diet? Are there any foods you’ve used or avoided to help with your RA symptoms and overall health? Comment below or start a conversation on myRAteam.