Foods to Avoid with Arthritis: What Foods Make Arthritis Worse?

Fact Checked By Dr Mark Watson M.D.

Arthritis is a condition characterized by inflammation in the joints, [1] which can cause pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. While there are various types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriatic arthritis, they all involve some degree of inflammation.

One factor that can influence the level of inflammation in the body is diet. Certain foods and ingredients have been found to increase inflammation and exacerbate arthritis symptoms.

Understanding the Role of Diet in Arthritis

Inflammation is a natural response of the immune system to injury or infection. However, chronic inflammation can contribute to the progression of arthritis and worsen symptoms. Therefore, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet [2] can be beneficial for individuals with arthritis.

Certain foods and beverages can trigger inflammation in the body, exacerbating joint pain and stiffness. On the other hand, a balanced diet rich in antioxidants and essential nutrients can help reduce inflammation and promote overall joint health. Let's dive into the specifics of what to avoid and what to include in your diet if you have arthritis. Here are some foods to be cautious about:

Highly Processed Foods

Highly processed foods, such as fast food, packaged snacks, and sugary treats, are often high in unhealthy fats, added sugars, and artificial additives. These ingredients can promote inflammation in the body [3] and contribute to weight gain [4], which can put additional stress on the joints. [6] It is advisable to opt for whole, unprocessed foods instead.

Sweetened Drinks

Sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, and fruit juices with added sugars, are not only high in empty calories but can also contribute to inflammation. [7]

These drinks have been linked to an increased risk of conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Choosing water, herbal tea, or unsweetened beverages is a healthier alternative. 

And too make matters worse for sweetened drinks some sweeteners like aspartame also contribute to inflammation. Although interestingly, aspartame can actually have the opposite effect and has even been studied as an anti inflammatory, it just depends on personal response to the chemical. [8] Unfortunately, though fructose can also cause inflammation. [9] So when it comes to sugar alternatives, you'll likely have to put in some trial and error.

Foods High in Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs)

Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are compounds that form when proteins or fats combine with sugars in the bloodstream. Foods that are high in AGEs, such as fried and grilled meats, processed snacks, and high-fat dairy products, have been associated with increased inflammation [10] and oxidative stress [11] from free radicals. Limiting the consumption of these foods can help manage arthritis symptoms. A couple of examples here are bacon, roasted foods, American cheese, fried foods, mayonnaise and margarine.

Refined Carbohydrates and Arthritis

Refined carbs are present in white flower, white rice and a lot of breakfast cereals. Refined carbohydrates are also known to exacerbate inflammation. [12] Generally it’s a good idea to substitute these for whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa where possible.

It’s nearly impossible to avoid all refined carbohydrates, but it’s worth keeping them to a minimum.

MSG and Arthrtis

MSG is also well known to make inflammation worse, [13] and whilst it may not appear regularly in every diet it is a mainstay of a lot of eastern foods. Monosodium glutamate should be avoided where possible. 

Trans Fats, Saturated fats, Omega-6 Fatty Acids and Inflammation

Omega-6 fatty acids, while essential for our health, can promote inflammation when consumed in excess. [14] Common sources of omega-6 fatty acids include soybeans, corn, safflower, sunflower, canola oil, nuts, and meat. Similarly trans fats and saturated fats also increase inflammation. [15] 

Trans fats are generally found in processed foods, commercial baked goods (cookies, donuts etc), or things such as margerine. 

To reduce inflammation, it is advisable to cook with healthier oils like olive oil, which primarily consists of monounsaturated fat.

Additionally, incorporating fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, sardines, and herring, into your diet can help counteract the inflammatory effects of omega-6 fats.

The Impact of Excessive Salt Intake

While sodium is an essential nutrient, excessive salt intake has been linked to increased inflammation and a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. It is important to be mindful of the sodium content in foods and opt for low-sodium alternatives. Flavoring meals with herbs, spices, and natural seasonings instead of salt can enhance the taste while reducing inflammation. [16]

Arthritis and Fried Foods and Processed Foods

Fried foods are typically cooked in oils high in saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids, both of which can contribute to inflammation. Moreover, fried foods often contain breading, added salt, and sugar, further exacerbating inflammation. To reduce the negative effects on arthritis symptoms, it is advisable to choose healthier cooking methods like baking or air frying.

Processed foods, such as frozen meals, lunch meat, baked goods, fast food, and packaged snacks, tend to be high in refined grains, added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium. all things that we've mentioned earlier. These ingredients can promote inflammation and increase the risk of obesity and insulin resistance, indirectly worsening arthritis symptoms as well as directly [17]. Opting for whole, unprocessed foods and preparing meals at home using fresh ingredients can significantly improve arthritis management.

The Link Between Alcohol and Arthritis

While some types of alcohol, like red wine, contain antioxidants that can have anti-inflammatory properties, excessive alcohol consumption can trigger arthritis flares, [18] especially in conditions like gout. 

Alcohol consumption also increases the build up or uric acid in the body which can increase inflammation. 

Studies have linked alcohol intake to an increased risk of developing gout and more frequent gout flares. Moderation is key, and individuals with arthritis should consult with their healthcare provider to determine their alcohol consumption limits.

The Potential Impact of Gluten

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, and rye. While gluten sensitivity is primarily associated with celiac disease, some research suggests that a gluten-free diet may benefit individuals with rheumatoid arthritis by reducing inflammation. [19]  However, it is important to note that not everyone is sensitive to gluten, and elimination diets should be done under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

Red Meats

Unfortunately for meat lovers, there’s a reasonable amount of research that links red meat to increased inflammation. [20] The baseline facts are that people who eat a lot of red meat (especially processed meat) had higher inflammation markers. In particular interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP). There have also been studies that show red meat commonly made rheumatoid arthritis symptoms worse. [21]

There’s also some evidence that plant based diets may lower inflammatory responses, but the jury is still out on that. [22]

It should also be noted that research done in 2022 has suggested that red meat itself in isolation was not the issue, [23] and that it was only processed meat that caused worsened symptoms for arthritis, but a lot of red meat products were in fact highly processed meaning the issue was correlation rather than causation. In short, the evidence is mixed, but it is worth considering.

Foods Bad For Arthritis “Rule Of Thumb”

In general, if it’s not a high omega 6 oil, and it’s fresh, not heavy fried or processed you’re probably fine. Foods that we’d generally consider unhealthy, high sugar, processed foods can make arthritis worse. The main exception to this rule, is the omega 6 fatty acids which we generally consider a positive and foods high in purines if you’re suffering with gout specifically.

Good Foods For Arthritis Management

While some foods can exacerbate arthritis symptoms, others have anti-inflammatory properties and can help manage the condition. Including these foods in your diet can have a positive impact on your overall well-being. Here are some foods that are beneficial for individuals with arthritis:

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Fresh fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants [24] that can help reduce inflammation and provide essential nutrients for joint health. Berries, cherries, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower [25]  are particularly beneficial. Aim to include a variety of colors in your diet to ensure a wide range of nutrients.

Lean Proteins

Opt for lean proteins, such as chicken, turkey, fish, and legumes, as they provide essential amino acids without excessive saturated fats. These proteins can help build and repair tissues, support immune function, and reduce inflammation in the body. [26,27]

Whole Grains

Whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, and whole wheat products, are rich in fiber and have a lower glycemic index compared to refined grains. They provide sustained energy, help regulate blood sugar levels, and contribute to overall health. Incorporating whole grains into your meals can be beneficial for arthritis management. [28]

Healthy Oils

Healthy oils, like olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, are rich in monounsaturated fats and have anti-inflammatory properties. The oils that you get from fish are of course also good, which is why a fish or algae oil supplement is often beneficial for arthritis. [29] They can help reduce inflammation in the body and support joint health. Using these oils in cooking or as dressings for salads can be a healthier choice compared to oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.

Mediterranean Diet

The Mediterranean diet is a well-known eating pattern that emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, lean proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. This diet has been associated with numerous health benefits, including reduced inflammation and improved arthritis symptoms. Following a Mediterranean-style meal plan can be a helpful approach for individuals with arthritis. [30]

Citrus Fruits and Flavonoids

While there is some debate about the impact of citrus fruits on arthritis, evidence suggests that the flavonoids present in these fruits may have anti-inflammatory properties. Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are also rich in vitamin C, which plays a crucial role in collagen formation and joint health. Including a variety of citrus fruits in your diet can be beneficial. [31] There have also been some studies suggesting citrus fruits are a negative for arthritis, [32] so this one could go either way, although generally there is more positive than negative.

Ginger and Turmeric

Both ginger and turmeric have been shown to have notable anti inflammatory effects, a lot of people choose to supplement their extracts however, due to the fact that you'd have to consume 3 grams of ginger and [33] even more of turmeric to get results. [34]

Debunking Arthritis Diet Myths

When it comes to arthritis and diet, several myths and misconceptions abound. It is essential to separate fact from fiction to make informed dietary choices. Here are some common myths about arthritis and food:

Nightshade Vegetables

Nightshade vegetables, including eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers, have been associated with worsening arthritis symptoms in some anecdotal reports. These vegetables contain solanine, a compound that some believe can contribute to inflammation. However, there is no scientific evidence to confirm this claim. Nightshade vegetables offer a range of essential nutrients and can be included as part of a balanced diet. [35]

Chicken and Poultry

There is no direct evidence linking the consumption of chicken or poultry to an increased risk of arthritis. In fact, the Arthritis Foundation recommends chicken as a substitute for red meat due to its lower saturated fat content. Opting for boiled or grilled chicken is a healthier choice compared to fried or breaded varieties, which can be high in unhealthy fats and AGEs. [36]

Lifestyle Factors and Arthritis Management

While diet plays a crucial role in managing arthritis, it is important to consider other lifestyle factors as well. Maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, and avoiding smoking are essential for overall well-being and can have a positive impact on arthritis symptoms. Here are some lifestyle tips to complement your dietary choices:

Regular Exercise

Regular physical activity is beneficial for maintaining joint flexibility, muscle strength, and overall fitness. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, and cycling can be gentle on the joints while providing numerous health benefits. Consult with your healthcare provider or a physical therapist to develop an exercise routine that suits your needs. [37]

Weight Management

Excess weight puts additional stress on the joints, particularly the knees, hips, and feet. Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce arthritis symptoms and slow down the progression of the condition. Combining a balanced diet with regular exercise is key to achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. [38]

Smoking Cessation

Smoking has been linked to an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis and can worsen symptoms in individuals with existing arthritis. Quitting smoking is essential for overall health and can help reduce inflammation and improve arthritis management. Seek support from healthcare professionals or smoking cessation programs to quit smoking successfully. [39]

What Foods Are Bad For Arthrtis? Conclusion

Managing arthritis requires a holistic approach that includes making the right dietary choices, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and seeking appropriate medical care. While there is no one-size-fits-all diet for arthritis, avoiding highly processed foods, sweetened drinks, and those high in AGEs can help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms. Incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oils into your diet can promote joint health and overall well-being.

Dr Mark Watson is the founder of Center TRT, having graduated from stamford more than 20 years ago, he is an expert in the field of supplemental health, focusing on long term benefits of complimenary treatment. View Profile


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