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Arthritis: Here's What You Need to Know

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Most people know someone with arthritis.  But did you know that healthy eating is important for managing rheumatoid arthritis?  Read on for how a healthy lifestyle, including food choices and physical activity, can help you live well with arthritis. 

What is arthritis?

Arthritis means inflammation of the joint (“arth” is joint and “itis” means inflammation). When people hear arthritis they usually think only of osteoarthritis, the kind that typically happens as you age.

In fact, there are over 100 different types of arthritis that can strike anybody from babies to older adults. While arthritis does commonly attack the joints, different types also cause musculoskeletal pain.

This article focuses on Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your body joints like in the hand and feet. This causes pain, inflammation and joint damage and may make it hard for you to walk and use your hands.

Rheumatoid Arthritis and healthy living

It is not always possible to prevent rheumatoid arthritis. But you can take control of the quality of life that you have with the condition by eating well and being active.

Healthy eating can make a difference to people with arthritis

Healthy eating can make a difference to some people with arthritis.  Here’s why:

  • Making healthy choices using Canada’s Food Guide will provide you with the right amount of energy and nutrients that you need to complete daily tasks and enjoy favourite activities.
  • Eating healthy can reduce the risk of chronic diseases like osteoporosis, heart disease and diabetes.
  • The best eating plan for someone with rheumatoid arthritis is to base their food choices on Canada’s Food Guide. This means:
    • Eating a variety of healthy foods each day.
    • Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits, whole grain foods and protein foods. Choose protein foods that come from plants more often.
    • Limiting highly processed foods.
    • Making water your drink of choice.
  • Using healthy fats like olive and canola oil and soft margarine instead of saturated and trans fats like butter and hard margarine.
  • Limiting high sugar and high sodium foods. 
  • People with arthritis should also pay special attention to calcium, vitamin D, iron and omega-3 fatty acids.

Is it true that arthritis can be cured with a special diet?

No. Fad diets that require you to eliminate foods or entire food categories like grains or even ask you to fast have not been proven to relieve pain or “cure” arthritis. In fact, sometimes they can make you feel worse – especially if you aren’t getting all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. Eating a balanced diet following Canada’s Food Guide is the best approach.

Should I lose weight if I have arthritis

A person’s weight is individual and advice on weight should be based on a number of considerations, including medical history, personal goals and lifestyle. A dietitian can give you personalized advice if you have any questions about your weight. Eating a balanced diet and enjoying physical activity will help improve your quality of life.

What vitamins and minerals are important for people with arthritis

By following Canada’s Food Guide, you will get all the nutrients you need to stay healthy. However, there are some vitamins and minerals that are important to pay attention to:

Calcium: Calcium is important for bone health and to prevent osteoporosis. People with arthritis can be at higher risk of developing osteoporosis and should make sure to meet their calcium needs, especially if they are taking corticosteroids. Calcium is found in foods like milk and milk products, fortified plant-based beverages, fish with bones, and green leafy vegetables. Most adults need about 1000 mg of calcium a day. If you’re over the age of 50 you need 1200 mg of calcium everyday.
 
If you are concerned about your calcium intake, speak with your dietitian about your calcium needs and how you can get more calcium from foods or supplements.
 
For a calcium-rich dessert, try our yogurt banana split for a healthier twist on a classic favourite – you can even enjoy it for breakfast.
 
Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and is important for keeping bones healthy and preventing osteoporosis. We get most of our vitamin D from the sun, but it is also found in fortified milk, soy and plant-based beverages, some fish, margarine, eggs and liver. 
 
Health Canada recommends that all adults over the age of 50 take a supplement with 400 IU of vitamin D each day. Since it can be difficult to get vitamin D just from sun and foods, speak to your dietitian about a vitamin D supplement.
 
Iron: Iron helps form hemoglobin in your red blood cells, which carry oxygen around the body. Many people with arthritis have anemia, which means they do not have enough hemoglobin or red blood cells. This is sometimes caused by arthritis medication. To help maintain the health of red blood cells and prevent anemia, it is important to get enough iron. The iron that your body absorbs the best comes from red meat and other animal products. If you don’t eat meat, you can also get iron from plant sources. 
 
Click here for a list of iron-rich food sources. Looking for an iron-rich meal? Try our Shakshouka recipe featuring braised lentils. It’s a satisfying meal any time of year!
 
If you’re concerned about your iron intake, speak to your dietitian about how to get more from food.
 
Omega-3 fatty acids: New research is suggesting that omega-3 fatty acids can help inflammatory arthritis (such as rheumatoid arthritis). Omega-3 fatty acids are found in cold water fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, sardines), plant oils (flax, canola) and nuts. Try this tasty tea poached salmon with fruit salsa for your next dinner.
 
Speak to your dietitian or health care provider about taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements if you don’t eat fish or other sources of omega-3. 

*Please note, fish oils and fish liver oil or cod liver oil are not the same. Fish liver oils can be dangerous in large amounts.

Most of the time, it is best to get the vitamins and minerals you need from food instead of supplements. However, depending on the type of arthritis you have or if you have other medical conditions, you may have trouble absorbing some nutrients. In this case, it may be helpful to take a standard multivitamin supplement. 

Speak to your dietitian or health care provider to find out more about supplements.  

Are there any herbal remedies helpful for rheumatoid arthritis

Because arthritis pain can be difficult to treat and manage, some people turn to herbal remedies. There are quite a few that have been promoted to relieve arthritis pain. So far there are not a lot of studies that have shown whether herbal remedies are helpful for arthritis. If you do want to try herbal supplements, make sure to speak to your health care provider first to make sure they are safe and do not interact with your medications. Remember, just because something is natural does not mean it is always safe to take. Read more about natural health products here.

How can a dietitian help?

A dietitian can work with you to make sure you are getting the important nutrients you need to stay healthy and prevent diseases like osteoporosis and heart disease. They can give you a personalized plan that considers your medical history, activity level, lifestyle, culture and goals. A dietitian can also give you advice on whether you would benefit from specific supplements. Connect with a dietitian today!

Bottom line:

Eating a balanced diet, like the one recommended in Canada’s Food Guide, will help give you the energy and nutrients you need when living with arthritis. Getting enough calcium, vitamin D, iron and omega-3 from food is important. A dietitian can help make sure you are getting enough of these nutrients and let you know if you would benefit from a supplement. Herbal remedies can have unwanted side effects and have not been proven to help arthritis. Always speak to your health care provider before starting a supplement.

You may also be interested in: 

Easing the Pain of Osteoarthritis
Gout
7 Tips to Help Keep Your Bones Strong
 
This article was written and reviewed by dietitians from Dietitians of Canada

Last Update – October 28, 2022

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