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According to the National Institutes of Health, arthritis affects about one in every five people in the United States. Arthritis is not a single disease, but a category that includes about a hundred disorders that involve joints (osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the most common). Most people probably don’t realize how much nutrition can improve the way they feel.
Because arthritis is a disease of inflammation, the most effective — and logical — treatment is anything that fights inflammation. Medical management of arthritis usually starts with ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory medications, and nutritional care starts with anti-inflammatory foods.
Before we get into my food specifics, I urge you tolose weight if you’re overweight. Being overweight puts extra stress on the joints, which increases the risk of wear and tear. In fact, every one pound of weight you lose equates to four pounds less stress and pressure on your knees. But there is another reason why being overweight is a problem. Body fat is not just an inert substance, it is metabolically active, capable of producing hormones and chemicals that actually increase levels of inflammation. By losing weight — and avoiding excess calories that can cause weight gain — you’ll automatically reduce the level of inflammation in your body.
When it comes to specific foods you should eat, an anti-inflammatory diet involves avoiding foods that make inflammation worse (saturated fat, trans fat and simple refined carbohydrate)… and eating plenty of foods that reduce inflammation.
These foods all help to reduce some aspect of inflammation:
Omega-3 fatty acids
The healthiest of fats for people with arthritis or other inflammatory disorders are omega-3 fatty acids, one of the polyunsaturated fats. While other foods increase levels of inflammation in the body, omega-3s actually work to decrease inflammation by suppressing the production of cytokines and enzymes that erode cartilage. More than a dozen studies have demonstrated that omega-3 fish oils can reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Study participants reported greater strength, less fatigue, reduced joint swelling and tenderness, less joint stiffness and less pain.
Although the evidence is less clear about how fish oil affects osteoarthritis, the anti-inflammatory effects of omega-3s are so potent that I recommend an omega-3-rich diet (and, in some instances, fish-oil supplements) to all my clients with arthritis. I’ve seen some amazing success stories. The best foods for omega-3 fatty acids: salmon (wild, fresh or canned), herring, mackerel (not king), sardines, anchovies, rainbow trout, Pacific oysters, omega-3-fortified eggs, flaxseed (ground and oil), and walnuts.
Extra-virgin olive oil
Olive oil contains the “good” monounsaturated fat, which protects the body against inflammation because it contains antioxidants called polyphenols. In animal studies, rats with arthritis were fed diets high in various kinds of oils. The researchers found that both fish oil and olive oil prevented (or helped reduce) arthritis-related inflammation. I recommend using olive oil when cooking, instead of vegetable oil or butter. Don’t load it on — just substitute one for the other in equal or lesser amounts.
Antioxidants—vitamin C, selenium, carotenes, bioflavonoids
Inflammation produces free radicals, those cell-damaging molecules that are formed in response to toxins or natural body processes. The synovium is just as prone to this kind of damage as the skin, eyes, or any other body tissue. Antioxidants protect the body from the effects of free radicals, and are a critical part of an anti-inflammation diet. Research has demonstrated that certain antioxidants may help prevent arthritis, slow its progression and relieve pain.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is one of the nutrients most responsible for the health of collagen, a major component of cartilage. In addition, research suggests that people who eat a diet low in vitamin C may have a greater risk of developing some kinds of arthritis. For those reasons, it is important to make vitamin C-rich foods an important part of your daily diet. However, researchers at Duke University found that long-term, high-dose vitamin C supplements may make osteoarthritis worse. I wouldn’t want you to risk your health with supplements, so if you have osteoarthritis, you should only get vitamin C from food sources — not from an individual supplement (100% of the Daily Value found in a standard multivitamin is fine, but avoid brands with larger amounts). Some of the best foods for vitamin C:guava, sweet peppers (yellow/red/green), oranges, grapefruit, strawberries, pineapple, kohlrabi, papayas, lemons, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, kidney beans, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, red cabbage, mangos, white potato (with skin) and mustard greens.
- Selenium: Low levels of the mineral selenium are related to osteoarthritis severity, and possibly to rheumatoid arthritis. In a study of more than 900 people, those who had low levels of selenium were more likely to have osteoarthritis of the knee. People who ate very few selenium-rich foods were nearly twice as likely to have severe arthritis compared with those who ate a selenium-rich diet. Some of the best foods for selenium:Brazil nuts, tuna (to avoid mercury, buy canned light tuna), crab, oysters, tilapia, pasta (whole-wheat), lean beef, cod, shrimp, whole grains, turkey and wheat germ.
- Carotenes: The carotenoids are a group of powerful antioxidant nutrients found in many fruits and vegetables. The best known is beta carotene, but there are many others. When it comes to arthritis, the carotenoid called beta-cryptoxanthin may reduce the risk of developing inflammation-related disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers from the United Kingdom found that people who ate diets high in beta-cryptoxanthin were half as likely to develop a form of inflammatory arthritis as those who ate very few beta-cryptoxanthin foods. They found that adding just one additional serving each day of a food high in beta-cryptoxanthin helped reduce arthritis risk.
Some of the best foods for beta carotene include: sweet potato, carrots, kale, butternut squash, turnip greens, pumpkin, mustard greens, cantaloupe, sweet red pepper, apricots and spinach.
Some of the best foods for beta cryptoxanthin include: winter squash, pumpkin, persimmons, papaya, tangerines, red peppers, corn, oranges and apricots.
- Bioflavonoids — quercetin and anthocyanidins: The bioflavonoids quercetin and anthocyanidins are both forms of antioxidants. The anti-inflammatory effects of quercetin may seem to be similar to those of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (such as aspirin and ibuprofen). For example, the synovial fluid in joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis contain highly inflammatory chemicals called tumor necrosis factor (TNF). In research, quercetin was able to limit the inflammatory effects of TNF. Some of the best foods for quercetin:onions (red, yellow, white), kale, leeks, cherry tomatoes, broccoli, blueberries, black currants, elderberries, lingonberries, cocoa powder, apricots and apples with skin (*Red Delicious).
Anthocyanidins and proanthocyanidins are powerful antioxidants known to reduce inflammation. They seem to inhibit production of certain inflammatory chemicals, including cytokines and prostaglandins. They contribute to the health of connective tissue, and are more powerful than vitamin C for defusing dangerous free radicals that can irritate body tissues and cause inflammation. Some of the best foods for anthocyanidins: blackberries, black currants, blueberries, eggplant, elderberries, raspberries, cherries, boysenberries, red/black grapes, strawberries and plums
Spices—ginger and turmeric
Most people don’t realize that spices are a part of nutrition. Like fruits and vegetables, spices come from plant sources, and they can have powerful effects on health. Certain spices seem to have anti-inflammatory effects, and therefore should be considered for arthritis treatment. Among the most promising are ginger and turmeric. Ginger contains chemicals that work similarly to some anti-inflammatory medications, so its effects on arthritis pain are not surprising. However, ginger can also act as a blood thinner, so anyone taking a blood-thinning medication should collaborate with their personal physician when adding foods and beverages seasoned with ginger. To incorporate more ginger into your diet, grate fresh ginger into stir-fries, enjoy ginger tea and bake low-fat ginger muffins.
Turmeric, sometimes called curcumin, is a mustard-yellow spice from Asia. It is the main ingredient in yellow curry. Scientific studies have shown that turmeric may help arthritis by suppressing inflammatory body chemicals. Enjoy chicken curry and healthy recipes that call for this anti-inflammatory seasoning.
Joy Bauer is the author of “Food Cures.” For more information on healthy eating, check out Joy’s Web site at www.joybauernutrition.com