Healthy eating and arthritis

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The information below has been written to address some common myths about food and arthritis. It provides general information about healthy eating and where to go for further information and advice. This sheet does not provide specific advice for people with other medical conditions or food intolerances.

Is there a diet to cure arthritis?
No diet has been proven by research to cure arthritis. Be very cautious of special diets or supplements that claim to cure arthritis. The best diet for arthritis is a healthy, balanced one to maintain your general health and prevent other medical problems.

Do certain foods cause arthritis?
There is very little proof that specific foods have an effect on arthritis. The exception to this is gout (see gout section below). Arthritis symptoms usually vary day to day. This makes it hard to know if a change in symptoms is because of a particular change in food or just coincidence. Some people with arthritis report improvements after avoiding certain foods. However this is usually due to individual food intolerances (see below).

I heard I should avoid…
• Nightshade foods:
This food group includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and capsicum. There is no proof that these foods have any effect on arthritis symptoms. It is possible that this diet works for some people by removing a food to which they are intolerant.

• Acid-producing foods: Arthritis is not caused by eating ‘acidic foods’ like oranges, lemons or tomatoes. Very few foods are as acidic as our digestive juices. Foods termed ‘acidic’ are usually very rich in vitamin C, which is beneficial to the immune system. So avoiding these may do more harm than good.

• Dairy products: There is no proof that dairy products cause arthritis. Dairy products are a rich source of calcium, which is an important building block for strong bones. Many people  with arthritis are at an increased risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones) so dairy products may be extra important to maintain bone health. If you have difficulties with dairy products, talk to your doctor about other high calcium foods or calcium supplements.

• Meat and meat products: There is mixed evidence about the effects of vegetarian diets on arthritis. These diets tend to increase your intake of vitamins as you eat more vegetables and fruits. Lower levels of fat in this diet may also help you to lose weight. These factors may help with arthritis symptoms. However a strict vegetarian diet may mean you miss out on other important nutrients, such as iron and vitamin B12.

Food intolerance
Some people may have a reaction, such as an upset stomach, after eating or drinking certain foods. This may be due to a food intolerance. If you feel that certain foods are causing problems, talk to a dietitian or your doctor. They may suggest you be tested for food intolerances. Do not cut whole food groups from your diet without talking to your doctor as you may miss out on important vitamins and minerals.

Gout
For some people with gout, certain foods appear to trigger attacks of gout. These foods tend to have high levels of purine, a substance that can be made into uric acid in the body. Purine-rich foods include:

• sardines, anchovies, mackerel and herrings
• kidneys, liver and offal
• shellfish, such as prawns, and scallops
• yeast.
For more information see the Gout and diet information sheet.

Can certain foods help arthritis?
Although most foods have no effect on arthritis, studies show that eating foods rich in omega-3 fats can help reduce inflammation, particularly in rheumatoid arthritis. While these effects are modest compared to medicines, omega-3 fats do not have serious side effects. They also have other health benefits, such as reduced risk of heart disease.

Foods rich in omega-3 fats:
• fish: oily fish, such as sardines and salmon, have greater amounts of omega-3 fats. Try to eat fish at least two to three times a week.
• fish oil supplements: see the Fish oils sheet for more information
• ground linseeds and linseed oil (also called flaxseed)
• canola oil (also called rapeseed oil)
• walnuts.

Does weight affect arthritis?
The simple answer is yes. Extra body weight increases the stress on many joints, particularly the knees, hips and lower back. There is also a clear link between being overweight and an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis. If you are overweight, losing weight will decrease the stress on your joints, reduce pain and make it easier for you to move around.

A guide to healthy eating
The best diet for arthritis is a healthy, balanced diet. This can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of other health problems. Talk to your doctor or see the Australian Government’s Food for health booklet at www.nhmrc.gov.au/publications to learn about general healthy eating guidelines. You may also find it helpful to see a dietitian for advice that is tailored to your individual needs.

There is no diet that can cure arthritis. A healthy, balanced diet is best.

For more information

To find a dietitian, talk to your doctor, contact the Dietitians Association of Australia on (02) 6282 9555 or use the ‘find a dietitian’ service at www.daa.asn.au

Books
Rayman, Margaret & Callaghan, Alison 2006, Nutrition and arthritis, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.
Westcott, Patsy 2000, Rheumatism and arthritis: Recipes and advice to stop the pain, Octopus Publishing Group, London.
Bauer, Joy 2005, The complete idiot’s guide to total nutrition, Alpha Books, New York NY.

Websites
Nutrition Australia www.nutritionaustralia.org