Osteoarthritis and nutrition: how your diet can help
Last updated 1st November 2019
- Ingredients & Nutrition
Here, Frances shares some of the top dietary tips from her new book, One Step Ahead of Osteoarthritis. Frances Ive is a health journalist who has written for UK national newspapers and consumer magazines, and is the author of multiple books.
In this article:
- How big a problem is osteoarthritis?
- What is the Mediterranean diet?
- How does a good diet help with osteoarthritis?
- Other steps you can take
How big a problem is osteoarthritis?
Aches, pains and swollen joints in your fingers, knees, hips or feet may well be a sign of osteoarthritis. This condition is so common that 8.75 million people in the UK have been diagnosed with it, and that doesn’t take into account all the others who haven’t been to the doctor about it.
Most of these people are over 50 and therefore they see it as a sign of ageing and can become rather depressed about it. Concerns about seeing people who are crippled with arthritis, losing mobility and independence are very valid. However, there is so much you can do that it’s not a good idea to focus on the negative.
In my book, One Step Ahead of Osteoarthritis, I outline the many things you can do yourself. Your GP is unlikely to give you really strong drugs unless you are in dire pain and therefore they would prefer you to find ways of managing your condition – losing weight, changing your diet, and above all exercising.
What is the Mediterranean diet?
Nutrition plays a large part in trying to control the inflammation in the body that is the cause of arthritic pain. The Mediterranean diet, which is now the recommended diet of choice by doctors, may be a good option.
It is a plant-based diet with plenty of:
- Fruit and vegetables
- Pulses (such as lentils) and beans
- Olive oil
- Chicken and turkey
One thing that is particularly beneficial is to have uncooked olive oil drizzled on food, such as salads and vegetables.
Forecasts claim that if current trends continue, by 2040 Spain will have the highest life expectancy in the world at 87.4 years. This is said to be due to the Spanish eating a Mediterranean diet.
How does a good diet help with osteoarthritis?
So why is the Mediterranean diet particularly healthy? There are several reasons:
- It is full of healthy fats found in, for example, oily fish (mackerel, salmon, tuna, herrings) and olive oil
- There is far less sugar than in a typical British diet
- It is high in vitamins and antioxidants which fight free radicals that attack the body
- Olive oil is high in antioxidants and is claimed to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body due to oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fat
The health benefits are certainly not exclusively for osteoarthritis. However, researchers at the University of Kent looked into the effects of eating the Mediterranean diet on people with osteoarthritis1. They found that inflammation of the joints and cartilage decay decreased in those participants who ate the healthy diet.
When eating for osteoarthritis specifically there are several things to consider. It is better to try to avoid very acidic foods and have a more alkaline diet although many foods are acidic.
There is no hard and fast rule but some foods and drinks appear to affect people who have osteoarthritis, making their joints swell up and/or become painful.
These foods include:
- The nightshade family - tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergines.
- Meat, which is acid forming.
- Wine can cause problems as it is acidic. Maybe it’s red wine, perhaps it’s both white and red that affect you; only you can decide. Sometimes a sparkling wine or a different drink is better, but it could be that alcohol is a problem.
- Caffeinated drinks - are they aggravating your osteoarthritis?
- Citrus - the strange thing is that lemon juice turns alkaline in the body, but some people do find that citrus fruits make their joints worse.
Nutritionists recommend exclusion diets, where you cut out the offending foods/drinks. You can try eliminating specific foods or drinks for a short time. If, for instance, potatoes and peppers are part of your daily diet, why not stop eating them for a month and see if it helps?
Cider Vinegar with Mother
Rather like citrus fruits, cider vinegar appears to be incredibly acidic but it turns alkaline in the body. One dessertspoonful in a full glass of water every morning (with honey to sweeten if you prefer) can really help with easing inflamed joints. It’s not particularly tasty but you get used to it!
It is often a question of trying a few different supplements one by one to see which make a difference. Turmeric has a good reputation and, while you can certainly add it to your food, it is better to buy a supplement to get enough into your system.
Glucosamine is a popular joint health supplement, and boswellia (Indian frankincense) is a lesser known supplement with a growing reputation.
Other steps you can take
There is plenty you can do to minimise the effects of osteoarthritis in addition to changing your diet. Exercise is extremely important, with swimming, cycling, yoga, tai chi and walking very suitable, while some specific exercises for osteoarthritis are also very helpful. Losing weight is beneficial and there are lots of practical things you can do such as ensuring your footwear is supportive, not sitting still for too long, making sure you’re not putting strain on your body while working at a computer, and not carrying heavy bags.
The important thing is to take control and ensure that you can maintain a good quality of life and a normal way of living. There is so much you can do to manage osteoarthritis and having a positive attitude about what you can do helps.
Osteoarthritis is a common condition that can cause significant discomfort. In the early stages, doctors are unlikely to prescribe medication to help. Fortunately, it is possible to alleviate the disease to some extent by eating the right foods - such as those found in the Mediterranean diet - and exercising in the right way.
- Dyer J1, Davison G, Marcora SM, Mauger AR. Effect of a Mediterranean Type Diet on Inflammatory and Cartilage Degradation Biomarkers in Patients with Osteoarthritis.J Nutr Health Aging. 2017;21(5):562-566. doi: 10.1007/s12603-016-0806-y.