Foods To Avoid With Osteoarthritis

  • Ellen Rogers MSc in Advanced Biological Sciences, University of Exeter

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Introduction 

Have you ever wondered why your joints ache and stiffen up, making even simple movements a challenge?

What if I told you that the food you eat could hold the key to relieving those pains?

Osteoarthritis, the UK's most common form of arthritis, brings discomfort and limited mobility to countless lives. From nagging joint pain to that peculiar grating sound when you move, it can be a real game-changer. But here's the twist – your diet might have a significant say in how osteoarthritis affects you.

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is mainly known for causing joint pain, especially when you wake up or sit still for a short time. It's something that often affects women and people who are overweight.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that more and more people are being diagnosed with osteoarthritis. They predict that by the year 2040, a whopping 78.4 million adults, which is around 25.9% of all adults, will have arthritis.⁷

Osteoarthritis is a common joint problem in the UK. It makes your joints hurt and stiff. The main symptoms of osteoarthritis are joint pain, stiffness, and trouble moving. Sometimes, your joints can swell, feel tender, or make strange sounds when you move them. 

The way osteoarthritis affects people varies a lot between individuals. For some, the pain is mild and comes and goes; for others, it's a constant problem, making daily activities tough.

Osteoarthritis can affect many joints, but it most often bothers the knees, hips, and hand joints. If you have these joint issues, it's a good idea to see your GP. They can check if you have osteoarthritis and give you the right treatment. Don't hesitate if you're dealing with persistent joint problems – they can help!¹ 

The importance of diet in managing osteoarthritis 

Your weight can significantly impact how osteoarthritis affects your comfort and mobility. When you're carrying excess weight, added strain is placed on your joints. Beyond that, having an abundance of body fat can lead to more inflammation, which can worsen your symptoms.

Here's the thing, though – there's strong evidence showing that shedding those extra pounds can work wonders. If you're overweight or obese, losing ten percent (or more) of your body weight is enough to ease your pain, improve your mobility, and boost your overall health. 

But it's not just about food.

Exercise is equally as important for your health and managing osteoarthritis.

Therefore, combining some physical activity with your dietary changes is a smart move. It helps you lose weight while preserving your muscles, which is great for your physical health and function. Osteoarthritis has also been linked to heart problems, like cardiovascular disease. So, losing those extra pounds doesn't just help your joints; it's a protective measure for your heart too. So, think about your diet and get moving – your body will thank you.² 

Dietary choices and their effects on osteoarthritis

Could those sugary drinks be causing your joint pain? What if the snacks you enjoy are behind your stiff knees?

As it turns out, what you eat might hold more power over your joint health than you thought. From the hidden sugars in soft drinks to the fats hiding in your favourite meals, your diet plays a significant role. As such, we’ll now start by discussing some of the worst foods for your joint health, so that you can make informed decisions and protect your body and health.

High sugar foods

It's common knowledge that we consume a lot of sugary stuff in the Western diet. This includes sugars like fructose and glucose, which you can find naturally in fruits and some vegetables. 

However, in the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that American soft drink consumption had shot up a whopping 500% in the past 50 years!³ Around the same time, Bray et al. found that high consumption of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is commonly found in sugary drinks, was tied to the increased rates of obesity between 1967 and 2000.⁴,

Today, we know that excessive amounts of added sugar and sugary drinks can lead to health issues like high blood pressure and cholesterol, strokes, and heart disease. It even raises the risk of death. So, maybe it’s time to think twice about those sweets and sodas!

High-fat foods

The increasing frequency of obesity is causing more people to develop osteoarthritis, which hurts their joints. Obese individuals are 33 times more likely to need a knee replacement than someone of a healthy weight; in 2005, 50% of knee replacement recipients in the United States were obese. Diabetes also increases your risk of osteoarthritis.

It’s well known that eating too much fatty food makes you gain weight and messes up your body's metabolism. The extra fat goes to your fat stores and can even surround your muscles, heart, and liver - causing problems all over your body.⁶

High-sodium foods

Now, consider sodium – a component of salt. Our bodies require a small amount of sodium, but a lot of us are consuming excessive quantities of it. The primary culprits? Fast food and processed meals. Shockingly, these foods can contain ten times more sodium than homemade dishes.⁸ 

Too much sodium can lead to inflammation in the body. This inflammation can make osteoarthritis worse, especially in the knees. So, if you're dealing with osteoarthritis, it might be a good idea to keep an eye on your salt intake.

High-refined carbohydrates 

White flour products like bread, rolls, and crackers, along with white rice, potatoes, and many cereals, fall into a category called refined carbohydrates. Whilst they provide lots of energy, theymight not be great for osteoarthritis, the painful joint condition.

As reported in Scientific American, processed carbohydrates could be connected to a range of health conditions, including obesity and osteoarthritis. Foods high in refined carbohydrates have a high glycemic index, and they can trigger the production of something called ‘advanced glycation end’ (AGE) products. These AGE products can cause inflammation, and therefore really aren’t great for your joints.⁹ 

Better food choices for joint health 

Fruits 

Fruits, especially berries like blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, are packed with natural compounds and nutrients that act as antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. These compounds, known as polyphenols, include anthocyanins, quercetin, and various types of phenolic acids.

When we compare different berries, they each have unique types of these polyphenols. These compounds, like phenolic acids, flavonoids (such as anthocyanins and flavonols), and tannins, are the reason berries can help with inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

Pomegranates are particularly powerful in the antioxidant department thanks to their ellagitannins and phenolic acid content, which can range from about 1200 to 9000 mg/L in the juice from the arils.

But it's not just the well-known fruits that are good for your joint health; lesser-known ones, like Russian olives or traditional Mediterranean fruits like olives and figs, also have lots of beneficial compounds. Russian olives contain flavonoid derivatives like isorhamnetin and kaempferol, plus phenolic acids such as 4-hydroxybenzoic acid and cinnamic acid. These compounds are responsible for their anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-relieving effects.¹⁰ 

Whole grains 

If you want to eat food that's good for your joints and doesn't cause inflammation, focus on whole grains when you shop or cook. These choices can also be gluten-free, which is important only if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Healthy grains include:

  • Amaranth: Amaranth is high in protein and has a nutty flavour. You can pop it like popcorn or make porridge by boiling it in water
  • Barley: Great for soups, stews, and risotto, and packed with 6 grams of fibre per cup
  • Brown rice: Brown rice is nutrient-rich because it keeps its bran and germ, unlike white rice. However, it takes a bit longer to cook
  • Buckwheat: A high-protein option for noodles, crepes, pancakes, and muffins
  • Bulgur: This nutty grain comes from cracked whole wheat, and is a great replacement forlike rice or couscous
  • Millet: Swap it for rice or add it to bread and muffin recipes
  • Quinoa: A versatile, high-protein seed that can help prevent inflammation
  • Sorghum: A protein-rich cereal grain. Use sorghum flour in bread, cookies, and other recipes
  • Rye: Often used for rye bread, it can help you feel full, which could aid in weight loss
  • Whole oats: They're high in protein and naturally gluten-free. Have them for breakfast or use them in recipes
  • Whole wheat: Use it instead of white flour to boost your nutrients and potentially reduce inflammation

Choosing these whole grains can be a smart move to keep your joints feeling good and minimise inflammation, especially if you have osteoarthritis.¹¹ 

Healthy fats 

If you're dealing with osteoarthritis and want to soothe your joints, it may help to eat more fish, especially oily ones like sardines, mackerel, and salmon. These fish contain special fats called long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, which are like natural inflammation fighters for your joints.

Try to include fish in your meals at least twice a week, and make sure one of those times it's an oily fish. Alternatively, you can consider fish oil capsules. The key is to take a dose that gives you around 450 mg of EPA and DHA each day if you're an adult.

While there's more to learn about how fish oil exactly helps with osteoarthritis, studies have shown that 450 mg of EPA and DHA a daycan reduce pain and improve joint function, especially for sufferers of knee osteoarthritis. Plus, it's the same amount recommended to lower the risk of heart problems.

However, not all fats are good for your joints. Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats, found in oils like sunflower, safflower, corn, and grapeseed, could actually worsen your symptoms by promoting inflammation. Similarly, saturated fats, which are mainly found in animal products, might not be great for your joints either.¹² 

These changes in your diet can go a long way in helping your joints and keeping inflammation under control, especially if you're dealing with osteoarthritis.

Summary

  • Osteoarthritis (OA) is a common joint condition causing pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. Our diets play a significant role in managing OA, and understanding its impact is essential
  • Excess weight increases strain on joints and inflammation, worsening the symptoms of osteoarthritis. Evidence suggests that losing at least 10% of your body weight can reduce pain and improve physical function in OA
  • High-sugar foods, especially those with added sugars (like soft drinks), can contribute to obesity and inflammation, potentially aggravating OA symptoms. Cutting back on sugary foods may help
  • High-fat diets, particularly in obese individuals, can lead to more severe OA symptoms. Replacing saturated and unhealthy fats with healthier options like olive oil can be beneficial
  • Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and barley are recommended for OA management, as they reduce inflammation. Additionally, incorporating omega-3-rich oily fish and limiting omega-6 polyunsaturated fats can help relieve OA symptoms

References 

  1. BDA. Osteoarthritis and diet [Internet]. Accessible via https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/osteoarthritis-diet.html.
  2. Versus Arthritis. Eating well with arthritis [Internet]. Accessible via https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/managing-symptoms/diet/
  3. Kokubo Y, Higashiyama A, Watanabe M, Miyamoto Y. A comprehensive policy for reducing sugar beverages for healthy life extension. Environ Health Prev Med. 2019; 24:13.
  4. Levy-Costa RB, Sichieri R, Pontes NDS, Monteiro CA. Disponibilidade domiciliar de alimentos no Brasil: distribuição e evolução (1974-2003). Rev Saúde Pública. 2005; 39:530–540.
  5. Lelis DDF, Andrade JMO, Almenara CCP, Broseguini-Filho GB, Mill JG, Baldo MP. High fructose intake and the route towards cardiometabolic diseases. Life Sciences. 2020; 259:118235.
  6. Mooney RA, Sampson ER, Lerea J, Rosier RN, Zuscik MJ. High-fat diet accelerates progression of osteoarthritis after meniscal/ligamentous injury. Arthritis Res Ther. 2011; 13:R198.
  7. Achmad A, Suharjono S, Soeroso J, Suprapti B, Siswandono, Pristianty L, et al. The sodium does not affect joint pain and functional activity of knee osteoarthritis patients. J Public Health Afr. 2023; 14:2494.
  8. Felson DT. Risk Factors for Osteoarthritis: Understanding Joint Vulnerability. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research 2004; 427: S16–S21.
  9. 8 Food Ingredients That Can Cause Inflammation - Arthritis Foundation, https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/foods-to-limit/8-food-ingredients-that-can-cause-inflammation
  10. Su X, Zhang J, Wang H, Xu J, He J, Liu L, et al. Phenolic Acid Profiling, Antioxidant, and Anti-Inflammatory Activities, and miRNA Regulation in the Polyphenols of 16 Blueberry Samples from China. Molecules. 2017; 22: 312.
  11. Arthritis Foundation. Best Grains for Arthritis [Internet]. Accessible via https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/healthy-living/nutrition/healthy-eating/best-grains-for-arthritis
  12. NHS. Arthritis - Living with arthritis [Internet]. Accessible via https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/arthritis/living-with/

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