What to eat (and avoid) when you have rheumatoid arthritis
Expert tips on how to use food to reduce painful symptoms and feel better.
Could a trip to the grocery store help relieve some of the painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA)? Actually, yes.
RA is a result of your immune system attacking healthy tissue. This triggers painful swelling and inflammation, often in your joints. Treating this inflammation can make a real difference in how you feel.
One of the most common ways to manage RA symptoms is with medication. (And a prescription discount card may be able to help you save at the pharmacy.) But another way is through your diet. Research shows that certain foods can affect the amount of inflammation in your body.
“Food definitely has a role in terms of inflammation,” says Rebecca Haberman, MD. Dr. Haberman is a rheumatologist and clinical instructor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City and an assistant director at the NYU Langone Health Psoriatic Arthritis Center.
For example, red meat, highly processed foods and simple sugars have been shown to fuel inflammation and RA symptoms. On the flip side, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can reduce inflammation and ease symptoms. How? The antioxidants, fiber and other nutrients they contain act within your body to reduce cell damage and improve gut health. These are factors that help tamp down inflammation.
A new study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that a low-fat vegan diet may also relieve pain related to RA. Study participants who adopted a plant-based diet cut their disease activity nearly in half. And the average number of swollen joints for each participant dropped from 7 to 3.3.
Dr. Haberman agrees that vegan diets do help some people with RA feel better. And she’s seen patients do well with vegetarian and gluten-free diets, too. “But the most important thing is to pick a healthy diet that you can stick to,” she says.
If a full vegan or gluten-free diet feels too hard, there are still a lot of other ways you can treat your RA with the right foods. Here are some tips, straight from an expert:
Watch your weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most effective ways to use your diet to treat RA. That’s because the total amount of inflammation in your body is closely tied to the number on the scale.
“Extra weight creates more inflammation,” explains Dr. Haberman. “We know that when you’re overweight, you have more RA symptoms. And when you lose weight, that in and of itself helps you reduce those symptoms,” she says.
The best part: If you have excess weight, even losing 10 pounds may improve your RA symptoms. That’s according to a study in the International Journal of Clinical Rheumatology.
Ditch the junk food
Highly processed foods, simple sugars and saturated fats are some of the biggest triggers of the kind of inflammation that may make your RA symptoms worse, says Dr. Haberman.
So think about cutting back on foods that don't resemble their from-the-ground form. Think: sugary cereals, chips and anything deep-fried.
Take it slow
When making dietary changes, it’s important to do them one at a time. That way, you can easily tell what’s working — and what’s not.
“If you try everything at once, you won’t know which changes are helpful for you,” says Dr. Haberman. “And you can end up really, really restricting yourself.”
For example, you could take turns cutting gluten, dairy or meat from your diet. See how each makes you feel, rather than nixing all 3 food groups at once. If whichever one you eliminate first eases your RA symptoms, great. Try another and see if it makes you feel even better. But if it doesn’t, you can move on. The point is to not make any unnecessary changes to your diet.
Try a Mediterranean diet
Easing pain and swelling aren’t the only reasons to follow a healthy diet. It can also support cardiovascular health. That’s important because RA is linked with an increased risk of heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
Dr. Haberman recommends a Mediterranean style of eating. It’s an eating pattern full of:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Lean meats, such as skinless chicken and turkey
- Legumes, such as black beans and chickpeas
- Healthy fats from sources such as olive oil
These foods are known to promote heart health and are great anti-inflammatory choices. Fill your plate with multitasking foods that will reduce your RA symptoms and cardiovascular risks.
“The Mediterranean diet can help you lose weight as well, which has been shown to lower the odds of metabolic disease and heart disease,” she adds.
Some supplements may help you cope with RA, too, says Dr. Haberman. These include vitamin D, probiotics and fish oil. While there are no studies supporting a specific probiotic, she says there’s no harm in trying them out. She suggests experimenting with a supplement for 2 months to see if you feel better. That way, you and your doctor can make an informed long-term plan.
Recommended reading: 7 easy kitchen tips that will make you love vegetables.
Set yourself up for success
Whatever type of diet you choose to manage your RA symptoms, just make sure it’s sustainable. “It’s about choosing something that you can actually adhere to that works with your lifestyle,” Dr. Haberman explains.
If a certain diet feels too restrictive or overwhelming, focus on smaller swaps instead. Any healthy eating habits you adopt will do more to reduce inflammation and RA pain than making no changes at all.
“One size doesn’t fit all, and if you can’t stick with a particular plan, that’s okay,” Dr. Haberman notes. Even if you simply make an effort to eat less added sugar or add another serving of vegetables to your day, it’s going to help you feel better, she says.
Another thing that feels good: spending less on medications. Download our prescription coupon app today to see how much you could save.
Study on the effect of a vegan diet on RA symptoms: American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (2022). “A randomized, crossover trial of a nutritional intervention for rheumatoid arthritis”
Study on weight loss and RA symptoms: International Journal of Clinical Rheumatology (2018). “Association of weight loss with improved disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: A retrospective analysis using electronic medical cord data”