Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory disease that causes swelling, stiffness, and in severe cases, deformity, of the hand, toes, and other joints.
The condition can also affect other body systems, including the skin, eyes, and blood vessels, and lead to complications like heart disease.
While medications are commonly prescribed for relieving RA symptoms and slowing disease progression, diet can also help you manage the condition.
This article explains what to eat and avoid with RA and provides a sample RA diet menu.
Causes and risk factors
RA is a type of inflammatory arthritis like psoriatic arthritis that can cause joint pain and damage throughout your body.
While researchers are unsure what exactly causes RA, several risk factors have been linked to the condition.
Risk factors for RA include (2):
- increasing age
- gender, with women being at a greater risk
- overweight and obesity
- family history of RA
- genetic factors
- leaky gut
- other autoimmune conditions like lupus, Hashimoto’s disease, and Meniere’s disease
RA causes inflammation in the lining of joints, resulting in damage to the joint tissue.
This tissue damage can cause chronic pain and stiffness in multiple joints.
Other symptoms of RA include (2):
- tenderness and swelling of joints
- poor appetite
- weight loss
- fatigue or tiredness
These symptoms tend to come and go, but during a flare, they can be severe.
The chronic inflammation that occurs with RA can also damage other parts of your body, such as the eyes, heart, lungs, and blood vessels.
Diagnosis and treatment
To diagnose RA, your doctor will likely review your medical history, perform a physical examination, and ask about any symptoms that you have been experiencing.
Your doctor may also perform tests to make a diagnosis and rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, such as gout and psoriatic arthritis.
These tests can include (1):
- A blood test to measure levels of inflammation and rheumatoid factor, a protein that attacks your healthy cells by mistake.
- Imaging studies like an x-ray to identify joint damage.
Based on the severity of RA, your overall health status, and your risk of complications, such as infection, heart disease, and anemia, your doctor can determine a treatment plan, which should include changes to your diet (1).
The role of diet in managing rheumatoid arthritis
Eating the right diet may help relieve some of your RA symptoms and reduce your risk of health complications from the condition.
Foods to avoid
With RA, it’s important to limit or avoid foods that promote inflammation in the body and damage cells.
Unlike natural sugars, which are found in fruit, milk, and vegetables, added sugars are added during the manufacturing process.
Examples of added sugars include:
- regular soft drinks
- fruit drinks
- syrups and toppings
- condiments like ketchup and dressings
Other common sources of added sugars like cakes, pastries, and dairy desserts like ice cream also contain a significant amount of saturated fat.
While not all sources of saturated fat are bad, the type of saturated fat in these products can raise cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease (7).
Fried foods are pro-inflammatory, meaning they produce inflammation (8).
Popular fried foods include chicken, french fries, cheese sticks, and onion rings, but you can fry just about anything.
Like many sources of added sugars, fried foods also contain saturated fats.
Processed meat is meat that has been smoked, salted, cured, dried, or canned.
These processing methods can produce harmful compounds that promote inflammation and can increase the risk of certain types of cancer, especially colon cancer (9).
Here are some examples of processed meats:
- hot dogs
- sandwich meat
- beef jerky
Foods to eat
Many foods have powerful anti-inflammatory effects that can help reduce your joint pain and swelling.
Fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain a category of compounds called polyphenols.
Polyphenols protect your body’s cells from oxidative stress and inflammation caused by free radicals (10).
Fruits and vegetables also contain several vitamins and minerals that can also help lower inflammation.
Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables of different colors to get the most health benefits.
Unlike refined grains, whole grains contain all three components of the grain — the bran, germ, and endosperm.
Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains are a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to reduce pain in people with RA (11).
Examples of whole grains and whole-grain products include:
- brown rice
- whole-grain bread and pasta
Protein is essential for muscle growth and maintenance, immune function, and transporting nutrients, among other functions.
Healthy protein foods include (12):
- beans and peas
- nuts and seeds
- lean beef
- soy products
These sources of protein contain additional nutrients such as probiotics, essential fatty acids, and vitamins, which may improve your symptoms.
One-day sample rheumatoid arthritis diet
Here is a one-day sample rheumatoid arthritis diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins.
- Breakfast: overnight oats made with Greek yogurt, blueberries, sliced almonds, and cinnamon
- Snack: apple slices and a handful of walnuts
- Lunch: Italian salad made with avocado, arugula, tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, basil leaves, and extra virgin olive oil
- Snack: hummus with pea pods and peppers for dipping
- Dinner: baked salmon, brown rice, and grilled asparagus drizzled with extra virgin olive oil
Supplements to combat rheumatoid arthritis
In addition to your diet, several supplements may alleviate joint pain and stiffness.
Curcumin is the main bioactive component in the spice turmeric.
By itself, curcumin is poorly absorbed, so look for supplements that contain black pepper, which enhances the body’s absorption of curcumin, like Life Extension’s Curcumin Elite.
Fish oil contains the essential omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects.
Shop for fish oil online.
Vitamin D deficiency is common in people with RA and has been linked with more severe symptoms (19).
You can purchase vitamin D online.
Probiotics are live bacteria that help maintain gut health, which is essential for controlling inflammation.
The bottom line
Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory disease that causes swelling and stiffness of the hand, toes, and other joints.
With RA, it’s important to limit your intake of added sugars, fried foods, and processed meats, as these foods can increase inflammation and worsen your symptoms.
Instead, eat mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins to decrease inflammation and reduce joint pain, swelling, and tenderness.
Several supplements including curcumin, vitamin D, fish oil, and probiotics can also help relieve your RA symptoms.