In Canada, 1 in 5 people above the age of 15 suffer from arthritis. Due to the prevalence of this disease, it’s important to understand how a patient’s lifestyle can affect their symptoms.
Arthritis can be incredibly debilitating, causing swelling, pain, stiffness, and a decreased range of motion throughout the body. Varying in severity, arthritis is a disease of the joints and is found in people of all ages, sexes, and races. As arthritis causes chronic pain in severe cases, steps to help minimize symptoms and provide pain relief for patients should be explored.
Balanced diets that are focused on fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources, whole grains, nuts and oils have anti-inflammatory benefits. As some types of arthritis cause inflammation of the joints, it would be reasonable to wonder if a healthy diet could reduce symptoms. So, can a plant-based diet be used to minimize the painful symptoms of arthritis?
Types of Arthritis
According to the Arthritis Foundation, there are four types of arthritis: inflammatory, degenerative, infectious, and metabolic. In terms of diet, inflammatory and degenerative forms of arthritis have the potential to be treated by certain food choices.
1. Inflammatory Arthritis
Everyone has a degree of internal inflammation in their body which can be a part of a healthy immune system and is crucial to treat infections and prevent diseases. However, some types of inflammatory arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), cause a patient’s immune system to misfire, mistakenly targeting their joints. As a result, this inflammation causes pain in the joints.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- Tenderness, swelling, and redness of the joints
- Stiffness, specifically in the hands, elbows, hips, knees, and ankles
- Chronic inflammation
- Stiffness in the morning that lasts longer than 30 minutes
Rheumatoid Arthritis and Diet
Most of the research conducted on diet and arthritis has focused on rheumatoid arthritis; this may be due to the high levels of inflammation found in RA patients.
Diets that are low in heavily processed foods and high in whole foods result in decreased levels of inflammation. Furthermore, some people who suffer from RA have found relief in plant-based eating. Although the data is currently limited, some studies have shown that people who focus on the consumption of whole foods with limited consumption of certain animal products and processed food may better manage their disease symptoms.
A 2020 systematic review of 70 clinical trials suggested that Mediterranean diets may improve pain scores, morning stiffness, and other symptoms caused by inflammation. Similarly, while the results were mixed, some studies found that vegetarian or vegan dietary patterns may improve the condition; however, the responses to the diets varied between individuals, suggesting that food intolerances and allergies may have played a role.
Additionally, it’s important to note that there are many ways to consume a vegetarian or vegan diet, both anti-inflammatory and pro-inflammatory. The authors postulate that some of the anti-inflammatory benefits of plant-based diets were due to the increased dietary fibre, resulting in improved gut health (gut microbiome, bacterial diversity, etc.).
2. Degenerative Arthritis
The most common form of arthritis is osteoarthritis, which is caused by the wear down of cartilage between the joints. When the cushioned barrier (cartilage) between the joints wears away, this causes bone to rub against bone, resulting in swelling, stiffness, and pain.
Symptoms of osteoarthritis include:
- Pain during or after movement
- Stiffness of the joints upon waking or after bouts of inactivity
- Loss of flexibility
- Tenderness on the joints
- Grating, popping, or crackling during joint use
- Bone spurs
Osteoarthritis and Diet
While there has been more research on RA and plant-based diets, there have been recent links between osteoarthritis and the Mediterranean Diet (MD). Typically, the MD is heavily plant- based, however, there are slight differences between iterations. For most people, the MD includes a high consumption of:
- Cereals and grains
- Olive oil
The Mediterranean way of eating also typically includes moderate amounts of:
- Lean red meats
- Red wine
- Olive oil
Recent studies have been conducted to evaluate the correlation between the MD and osteoarthritis. A 2018 review included two cross-sectional studies and one randomized clinical trial. It’s important to note that cross-sectional studies are often considered lower quality compared to randomized trials, however, the results amongst these studies were in agreement. They showed that a higher adherence to the MD resulted in a decrease of symptom severity. While abiding by a Mediterranean way of eating is not a cure for osteoarthritis, it may improve the quality of life for those suffering from the disease.
While some studies have shown that diet can lessen the severity of symptoms in arthritic patients, many factors contribute to this complex disease. Contrary to popular belief, a 2015 study showed that exercise rehab programs can provide short-term benefits to those suffering from knee osteoarthritis. As arthritis treatments continue to be researched, patients can still focus on improving their dietary health through introducing more nutrient-rich foods. Dr. Matthew Nagra can assist in arthritis management, which can include designing a plant-based diet that’s diverse, delicious, and rich in disease-fighting nutrients. Get in touch today.
Matthew Nagra is a Naturopathic Doctor and is a passionate advocate for evidence-based nutrition as medicine. I have a particular passion for plant-based/vegan nutrition, physical medicine, and chronic disease. With additional training in nutrition, I hold a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell University and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies where I’ve authored multiple articles on the subject.