Anti-inflammatory Diet for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Does What You Eat Have an Effect on RA?

Question: Does what I eat have an effect on my rheumatoid arthritis? I heard about an anti-inflammatory diet that includes eating salmon and dark chocolate and drinking green tea. I currently take medication for my RA, but it can't hurt to try this anti-inflammatory diet, right?
— Santa Barbara, CA

Answer: You're right: What you eat may have a mild effect on your rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Some foods—as part of the anti-inflammatory diet—may have an anti-inflammatory effect, which means that they may reduce inflammation levels in your body.
woman purchasing fish at the marketInflammation in your body can cause swollen, stiff, and/or tender joints—classic RA symptoms.

The difference between this so-called "diet" and other diets is that the goal isn't necessarily weight loss—although anti-inflammatory foods do encourage weight loss. Rather, the goal of an anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce the overall inflammation in your body.

Eating to avoid constant inflammation is good for your overall health, but the question is: Is it enough to eat anti-inflammatory foods to combat inflammation?

Most people eat too many foods rich in omega-6 fatty acids, essential fatty acids that can be found in highly processed foods, red meat, full-fat dairy foods, saturated fats, trans fats, and baked goods. These foods can promote inflammation.

Eating too many foods high in omega-6 fatty acids increases the levels of cytokines in the body—proteins that trigger inflammation. However, eating more foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, cod, mackerel, and tuna, can help balance out the omega-6 fatty acids, thus helping to reduce inflammation.

As with the omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon and other fish, some additional foods can reduce inflammation in the body. Dark chocolate and green tea, which you mentioned, have anti-inflammatory properties. These foods contain natural inflammation fighters, such as antioxidants and phytochemicals (natural chemicals found in some plant foods).

Below are some other foods that may ease the inflammation associated with RA.

  • Fruits and vegetables: cherries, grapes, strawberries, red and green bell peppers, and cayenne peppers. (These peppers contain a special ingredient called capsaicin, which can help ease joint pain. You can buy an over-the-counter capsaicin cream if you don't like eating cayenne peppers.)
  • Other foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids: olive oil, walnuts, and freshly ground flaxseed and flaxseed oil (which can also help reduce joint stiffness and pain); you can also get your omega-3s from a high-quality fish oil supplement.
  • Whole grains: brown rice and quinoa
  • Herbs and spices: curry, turmeric, and ginger

A 2003 study examined the anti-inflammatory effects of a low arachidonic acid diet (a diet low in omega-6 fatty acids) and fish oil in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Patients who were on an anti-inflammatory diet that included taking fish oil had a significant reduction in tender and swollen joints. Fish oil is made up of the fatty acids EPA and DHA. EPA may keep joints healthy and reduce inflammation, while DHA may promote heart and brain health. The study found that a diet low in arachidonic acid reduces inflammation in patients with RA and that fish oil supplements may help. 1

However, to what extent an anti-inflammatory diet can help ease the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis is still being explored with ongoing studies. Researchers continue to investigate the specific inflammation-reducing benefits of the anti-inflammatory diet.

As part of a healthy lifestyle, I recommend that you incorporate healthy, nutritious foods at every meal to maintain a healthy weight. When you're overweight, the level of inflammation increases in your body, which can cause other rheumatoid arthritis symptoms to flare up.

It's also important to get enough sleep and exercise regularly to decrease rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. If you're curious about the anti-inflammatory diet, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. He or she can let you know if the anti-inflammatory diet is right for you.