Nutrition

Eating for Arthritis—How to Curb Joint Pain with Diet

 ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Eating for Arthritis—How to Curb Joint Pain with Diet

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Arthritis can be a terribly painful and limiting condition. It can strike any joint, causing pain and swelling that makes it difficult to move or perform ordinary tasks. Arthritis greatly diminishes quality of life in many people. 

What you can do as a trainer and nutrition coach is encourage clients to exercise safely to lose weight and put less strain on their joints. You can also guide them to healthier foods that not only support a healthy weight, but also may naturally reduce inflammation and joint pain. 

While you cannot prescribe a diet for clients, you can educate them about better choices for arthritis pain. You can also encourage them to see a dietician or their doctor for medical advice. 

What is Arthritis? 

Arthritis is swelling and pain in the joints. It can occur in any joint and causes pain, stiffness, decreased range of motion, redness, and swelling. Anyone can develop arthritis, but it tends to be more common and to worse with age. There are two main types of arthritis: 

Osteoarthritis

This is the most common form of arthritis. It results from damage to the cartilage in joints, the result of wear and tear over time. The reduction in cushioning cartilage causes a lot of pain and limited mobility. Most people develop some degree of osteoarthritis as they get older. Other risk factors include family history, obesity, and previous injury in a joint. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis

RA is an autoimmune disorder. It occurs when the immune system attacks the synovial membrane, the lining inside joints. It causes inflammation and pain. Over time, cartilage begins to deteriorate as well. What causes RA is not fully understood, but risk factors include family history and being female. 

There is no cure for arthritis, but you can manage symptoms with medications. Painkillers may be useful for all types, while biologics can help with RA by suppressing the attacking immune system. Physical therapy may improve range of motion and surgery is used after more conservative treatments fail to provide relief. 

How Diet and Lifestyle Impact Arthritis

Diet can play a big role in how you experience arthritis, but it is not a cure. If you choose the right foods, you may have fewer and less severe symptoms, including inflammation and pain. Losing or maintaining weight is one of the most important things you can do to manage symptoms.

Excess weight puts more stress on joints, worsening symptoms. A study compared participants with arthritis in three groups: adding exercise, changing diet, and doing both. The researchers found that all helped, but when participants combined exercise with a healthier diet, they lost more weight and got more relief from arthritis. As a trainer, you can work with arthritic clients on joint-safe exercises. 

Studies also show that dietary changes alone, without considering weight or exercise, can benefit arthritis patients. The reason for this may be that certain foods either reduce inflammation or promote it. The more you can reduce or prevent inflammation in the joints, the better they’ll feel. 

What Eating for Arthritis Looks Like – Top Foods and Nutrients

There is no official arthritis diet, but foods that reduce inflammation are considered best for managing symptoms. An overall healthy diet that supports a healthy weight is the best strategy. To this, add specific foods that fight inflammation in joints. 

Fatty Fish

Fish from cold water regions are loaded with healthy fats and vitamin D, two nutrients that may help reduce arthritis symptoms. Choose sustainable sources of salmon, mackerel, lake trout, and sardines. 

Studies have shown adding omega-3 fatty acids, which these fish are rich in, lowers pain and joint stiffness in patients with arthritis. Other studies have shown that people who include these fats in their diet have fewer markers for inflammation after several weeks. 

Fatty fish are also good sources of vitamin D. Some studies show that people with rheumatoid arthritis are deficient in this nutrient. In addition to fish, people with arthritis may benefit from supplementing omega-3 fats and vitamin D. 

If you are a vegetarian or just don’t like fish, try adding more olive oil and walnuts to your diet. Both are excellent plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Safe sun exposure—limited and with sunscreen—can boost vitamin D. 

Take a look at how omega-3 fats may also help you improve your athletic performance. 

Cruciferous Vegetables

A healthy diet should include a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits. Some evidence points to the cruciferous varieties as being particularly useful in reducing inflammation. This family of produce includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. 

A study of female participants found that greater intake of cruciferous vegetables correlated with fewer markers for inflammation. Another study found that a compound in broccoli, sulforaphane, reduces compounds associated with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Ginger

Add flavor and reduce arthritis symptoms with ginger. Substances in ginger may block inflammatory compounds in the body. In a study in which participants with arthritis used ginger extract, more than half reported less knee pain after several weeks. Ginger is easy to use fresh or powdered in foods. You can also find it in tea form. 

Berries

Berries are low in calories and sugar and packed with nutrients. These include compounds called quercetin and rutin. Studies have found that these may reduce inflammation by blocking the chemical processes that lead to inflammation. Studies show that eating at least two servings of berries per week reduces inflammatory markers. 

Tart Cherry Juice

In a study of tart cherry juice, participants with osteoarthritis drank either the juice or a placebo daily for six weeks. At the end of the study, those who got the juice experienced a significant reduction in arthritis symptoms. Like other arthritis foods, the likely reason is that compounds in tart cherry juice reduce inflammation. 

What to Avoid When Eating for Arthritis

What you don’t eat can be just as important as what you do eat when it comes to arthritis. Any foods that promote inflammation can worsen symptoms, so avoid these or use them only sparingly: 

  • Red meat and processed meats, like deli meats and hot dogs
  • Oils with too much omega-6 fatty acids, including corn, sunflower, safflower, and soy
  • Sugar, especially added sugar
  • Refined carbohydrates, like white bread and pasta
  • Fried foods
  • Alcohol

Keeping it Simple – The Mediterranean Diet

Choosing the right foods can be overwhelming, but there is a simple solution. The Mediterranean diet isn’t a diet per se; it’s a traditional style of eating. It’s easy to follow, simple, and highly effective in many ways. If you can follow this diet, you’ll be eating many of the best anti-inflammatory foods and avoiding those that worsen joint pain and swelling. 

Studies of Mediterranean eating continue to show that it has numerous health benefits. Researchers have even applied it to people with arthritis and found it improves symptoms. The Mediterranean diet includes plenty of: 

  • Fish
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Olive oil
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Nightshade vegetables

The latter includes tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and peppers. There is some controversy surrounding the nightshades, with some people claiming they actually worsen arthritis. There is no solid proof of this. However, because some report worse pain after eating them, it may be that individuals are sensitive to compounds in these foods. If they bother you, avoid them. 

Another traditional diet that may reduce inflammation is the Okinawa diet. Learn more about it here. 

It may be out of your scope of practice to create an arthritis diet for clients, but you can do a lot of good through education. Share this information with your arthritic clients and encourage them to make healthy food choices for less pain and greater mobility. 

Consider completing the ISSA Certified Nutrition Coach course online to learn more about helping clients make food choices for optimal health. A nutrition certification is a great add-on for any personal trainer looking to expand their service offerings.

ISSA

References

"Arthritis - Symptoms And Causes". Mayo Clinic, 2021, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/arthritis/symptoms-causes/syc-20350772.

Messier SP, Mihalko SL, Legault C, et al. Effects of Intensive Diet and Exercise on Knee Joint Loads, Inflammation, and Clinical Outcomes Among Overweight and Obese Adults With Knee Osteoarthritis: The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA. 2013;310(12):1263–1273. doi:10.1001/jama.2013.277669

Tedeschi, Sara K et al. “Diet and Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms: Survey Results From a Rheumatoid Arthritis Registry.” Arthritis care & research vol. 69,12 (2017): 1920-1925. doi:10.1002/acr.23225

Lankinen, Maria et al. “Fatty fish intake decreases lipids related to inflammation and insulin signaling--a lipidomics approach.” PloS one vol. 4,4 (2009): e5258. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005258

Kostoglou-Athanassiou, Ifigenia et al. “Vitamin D and rheumatoid arthritis.” Therapeutic advances in endocrinology and metabolism vol. 3,6 (2012): 181-7. doi:10.1177/2042018812471070

Jiang, Yu et al. “Cruciferous vegetable intake is inversely correlated with circulating levels of proinflammatory markers in women.” Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics vol. 114,5 (2014): 700-8.e2. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2013.12.019

Choi, Yun Jung et al. “Sulforaphane inhibits IL-1β-induced proliferation of rheumatoid arthritis synovial fibroblasts and the production of MMPs, COX-2, and PGE2.” Inflammation vol. 37,5 (2014): 1496-503. doi:10.1007/s10753-014-9875-4

Altman, R D, and K C Marcussen. “Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis.” Arthritis and rheumatism vol. 44,11 (2001): 2531-8. doi:10.1002/1529-0131(200111)44:11<2531::aid-art433>3.0.co;2-j

Sesso, Howard D et al. “Strawberry intake, lipids, C-reactive protein, and the risk of cardiovascular disease in women.” Journal of the American College of Nutrition vol. 26,4 (2007): 303-10. doi:10.1080/07315724.2007.10719615

Schumacher, H R et al. “Randomized double-blind crossover study of the efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in treatment of osteoarthritis (OA) of the knee.” Osteoarthritis and cartilage vol. 21,8 (2013): 1035-41. doi:10.1016/j.joca.2013.05.009

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