You already know that what you eat can impact your weight, shape and elements of your health like your blood pressure and cholesterol. But did you know that your diet can also play a role in your experience with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
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Registered dietitian Beth Czerwony, RD, explains how an anti-inflammatory diet can help relieve your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms — and which foods can make you feel worse.
Does diet affect rheumatoid arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis and diet are more closely connected than you might expect.
RA is caused by uncontrolled inflammation in the body, which damages the cartilage between your joints. But certain foods are known to be anti-inflammatory, meaning they can help soothe or prevent inflammation. And on the other end of the spectrum are foods that cause inflammation.
“With inflammatory conditions, the body’s immune system attacks itself, which causes pain and cell damage,” Czerwony explains. “Your diet can make these symptoms less intense or less frequent — or, on the other hand, consuming foods that cause inflammation can aggravate your symptoms.”
What’s the best diet for someone with rheumatoid arthritis?
No singular diet or style of eating can treat or cure rheumatoid arthritis, but focusing on healthy, whole foods eating, in general, can have a positive impact on your RA symptoms.
“Following a low-fat, low-sugar diet with a variety of fruits and vegetables will help quiet down the inflammation,” Czerwony says.
And consider antioxidants your own personal superheroes, here to help you fend off inflammation. These molecules, found in certain foods, help decrease free radicals in your body — which is especially important for people with RA.
“Free radicals are natural byproducts of our metabolism, and they can also be caused by external factors like stress, smoking and pollution,” Czerwony explains. “They can cause cell damage, which increases inflammation.”
Foods that are generally high in antioxidants include:
- Curcumin, found in turmeric.
- Fish oil.
- Green tea.
- Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies, as well as in walnuts.
Here are some specific antioxidants and the foods that contain them in a high amount:
- Beta-carotene comes from brightly colored fruits and vegetables like carrots, peas, spinach and mangoes.
- Vitamin C is found in most fruits and vegetables, especially berries and peppers. Other good sources are broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, tomatoes citrus fruits and tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, papaya and guava.
- Vitamin E can be found in nuts, sunflower seeds and vegetable oil.
- Lycopene comes from pink and red vegetables like tomatoes and watermelon.
- Lutein is in green, leafy vegetables, as well as in corn, papaya and oranges.
- Selenium, which you only need in small doses, is found in eggs, tuna, salmon, brown rice, onions and many other vegetables.
Diets that might improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms
Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can do exactly what it sounds like it can — calm inflammation in your body and help relieve or prevent some of your symptoms. But here’s the thing: There’s no one, straightforward way to follow an anti-inflammatory diet.
Czerwony walks you through some of the most commonly asked-about diets and whether they can help your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Have you heard of the Mediterranean diet yet? If not, now’s the perfect time to get acquainted.
“Touted for years as the best diet for many health conditions, this diet is the best option for someone who is looking for an anti-inflammatory diet,” Czerwony says. It focuses on:
- A diversity of colorful fruits and veggies.
- Nutrient-packed, complex carbohydrates whole grains and legumes.
- Olive oil, which is a plant-based and high in unsaturated fat (the good kind of fat).
- Lean proteins, like fish and poultry.
- The occasional glass of wine with meals.
- Minimal dairy products, red meat, processed meats and sweets.
“Similar to the Mediterranean diet, a vegetarian diet will inherently include anti-inflammatory foods,” Czerwony says. “Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, and you won’t be getting saturated fats from animal products.”
But remember: Vegetarian eating doesn’t automatically mean healthy eating. After all, foods like French fries are technically vegetarian, but that doesn’t mean they’re good for you! To see the most benefits (for your RA and your overall health), focus on keeping foods plant-based.
“A low-carb diet can be a part of an anti-inflammatory diet, as long you eliminate refined carbohydrates and high-fat foods,” Czerwony says.
In general, processed foods are inflammatory foods. And refined carbs, also known as simple sugars, are super-processed. They include foods like:
- White bread.
- Pizza dough.
- Pasta made with white flour.
The keto diet can be a smart move for people with a variety of medical conditions, but if you’re looking for an anti-inflammatory diet, this high-fat, low-carb eating style isn’t the answer.
“The keto diet recommends large portions of meats and fats to cause the body to go into ketosis,” Czerwony cautions. “But many fruits and vegetables aren’t allowed, and neither are complex carbohydrates and whole grains.”
Too much animal fat can be inflammatory, and without many anti-inflammatory foods to provide balance, the keto diet may actually make your inflammation worse, not better.
Foods to avoid when you have rheumatoid arthritis
As we’ve discussed, processed foods are inflammatory foods — so, if you’re trying to tackle inflammation, one of the very best things you can do is to scale back on them. That includes, especially, foods that are high in:
- Added sugars, like in sodas, candy and desserts.
- Refined carbs, like foods made with white flour.
- Trans fats, like fried foods, margarine, shortening and lard.
- Processed meats, like hot dogs and sausage.
- High-fat foods, like red meat and whole eggs.
“These foods should be avoided because the extra fat and sugar will encourage inflammation,” Czerwony notes. “And some people have increased symptoms when consuming gluten or dairy, so it’s important to pay attention to how your diet is affecting your symptoms.”
Treating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms through diet
Because everyone’s body is different, you’ll have to figure out which foods are the biggest triggers for your RA symptoms, which can involve a little bit of trial and error.
If you see a rheumatologist, ask them to connect you with a dietitian who has experience working with people who have RA. A dietitian can help you start an elimination diet, if needed, to figure out which foods trigger your symptoms.
When you live with rheumatoid arthritis, making even small changes to your diet can have a big impact on your everyday life.