Rheumatoid Arthritis

Diet & food supplements for rheumatoid arthritis

Magazines and books give a lot of confusing advice about diet and food supplements that are claimed to help with arthritis. Some people notice that certain foods make their arthritis flare up and it does make sense to avoid these foods as long as essential nutrients aren't excluded.

Most doctors, however, believe that people with arthritis should eat a balanced diet, including lots of fruit, vegetables, pasta, fish, and white meat, while avoiding too much sugary, fatty food. It is important not to be overweight, since too much weight can put an extra burden on strained or damaged joints.

Many of those we interviewed recognised the importance of a healthy balanced diet. Those people who had noticed no ill-effects said they would rather enjoy whatever food they chose to eat.

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On the other hand, various foods apparently upset some people. For example, one woman found that her arthritis was badly affected by peppers, carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, dairy produce and Chinese food. Red meat also upset her and so did red wine unless it was organic.

Some people felt better when they cut out certain foods, particularly acidic foods, eg citrus fruits, tomatoes, strawberries, rhubarb as well as red meat, alcohol, tea and coffee. Eating them led to more pain the next day but some people did not resist the temptation of foods they really liked, especially chocolate.

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Several people said they avoided processed food and another person particularly avoided 'junk' food. One woman's arthritis improved when she omitted processed foods. If she had a 'flare' she would cut out all solid food for 48 hours to give her system a chance to 'calm down'.

Many participants mentioned alcohol. Some used it only in moderation or stopped drinking altogether. Some said one or more of red wine, white wine, beers and spirits increased joint stiffness or led to a flare the next day. A few avoided alcohol because it interacted with medicines they were taking.

Several other people, however, had tried various diets to no avail. One woman found that dieting made her feel isolated and miserable, partly because she missed her favourite foods and partly because when dieting she couldn't join in normal social activities. She also had allergy tests for certain foods.

Many diets recommend eliminating dairy produce and one woman tried a number of 'exclusion' diets. Some began by having enemas to clear out the digestive system. On one diet she could eat only grapes for two weeks; then different foods were added one at a time. But these diets made her feel unwell and the pain persisted. Another woman thought that the exclusion diet she ate for two years did help to some extent and she still avoids some of those foods.

A man we interviewed tried a gluten free diet, but it didn't help so he resumed a normal diet. A woman tried a 'fish' diet, but it made her condition worse and her doctor told her to abandon it.

Two women tried the Dong diet, which excluded all additives, red meat, fruit, and dairy products, and only allowed a few foods, such as fish, rice, nuts and seeds. One tried it for six weeks but hated it. Her arthritis didn't improve and she said her 'insides were completely at war' for two months after she stopped the diet. The other also said it had made her feel unwell.

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Most people were taking or had tried various food supplements hoping to relieve their symptoms. They included vitamin A, B, C, E, glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin, selenium, zinc, magnesium, cod liver oil, herbs, green lipped mussels, black molasses, aloe vera, cider vinegar, ginger and honey, devil's claw, royal jelly, nettle tea, comfrey tea and evening primrose/starflower oil. For more information on some of these food supplements see Arthritis Research UK.

One woman stressed the importance of telling her doctor and the rheumatology clinic about the various supplements she was taking.

Some people were sure that cod liver oil helped, some found no difference, but one woman said that it made her arthritis worse. Cod liver oil capsules made another woman feel sick. Some people ate more oily fish in their diet, eg. mackerel.

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Most people were not sure whether or not food supplements made any difference to their condition and didn't feel worse if they stopped. Some concluded a healthy diet provided the nutrients they required. A few had taken part in trials of supplements such as evening primrose oil and aloe vera liquid, but didn't report the results.

Some people concluded that most food supplements were a waste of money. A 55 -year old man had spent hundreds of pounds on herbal remedies to no avail, but thought that cod-liver oil, glucosamine and chondroitin were helpful. However, someone else thought that glucosamine hurt her joints.

People with arthritis have a risk of developing osteoporosis, particularly if they are elderly or have been on a corticosteroid for a long time. A few people were taking calcium tablets, such as Osteocare, and Vitamin D to prevent this problem and others included more calcium rich foods in their diet.

(Also see 'Complementary and alternative approaches'. For more on homeopathic remedies see 'Steroid tablets, injections and intravenous pulses'.)

Last reviewed August 2016.

Last updated September 2010.

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