This month I turned 47 and was diagnosed with a mild case of osteoarthritis in my left knee. Happy freakin’ birthday!
While a swollen knee isn’t any fun, it has caused me to consider the question, can diet cure arthritis?
Or perhaps I should ask, do certain foods aggravate arthritis?
I have to confess…
As part of my month-long birthday celebration I may have overindulged in Fireball cinnamon whisky and dark chocolate covered raisins on more than one occasion.
Some salty BBQ potato chips may have worked their way into the mix on a few evenings as well.
So I wasn’t terribly surprised when my joints began to feel stiff and my left knee began to swell. I’m keenly aware of how eating the wrong food impacts my body.
Let’s travel back in time for a minute…
On an early Sunday morning in April 2011 I lay brooding in bed.
My body felt achy and bloated and another birthday had passed without the weight loss I had envisioned at the beginning of the year.
I recall thinking, “If I feel this awful in my early forties, how am I ever going to make it to eighty?”
I bolted from the bed and used my toe to drag the scale out from under the dresser.
My husband’s eyes blinked open as I stepped off the scale.
“I weigh 230 pounds,” I nearly shouted at him. “Would you have guessed I weigh that much?”
Chris managed to look confused and frightened at the same time. As he searched for the right answer I grabbed his arm and pulled him from the bed.
“Get on the scale,” I insisted.
He obediently complied and I watched the numbers blink up to 216.
“Are you surprised by that number?” I demanded. “Would you have guessed you weigh that much? Are you surprised I weigh more than you?”
“Well…” Chris replied reluctantly as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes. He continued bravely, “I had an idea you might weigh a little more than me.”
My husband and I now laugh about this crazy exchange, but it represents a turning point.
This wasn’t the first time I lamented about my weight, nor would it be the first time I took steps to lose the extra pounds.
However, it would be the first time I achieved lasting change.
Over the course of a year I switched to a plant-based diet and gradually shed nearly 70 pounds.
I not only lost weight, my achy joints subsided and my energy level increased.
Assuming my achy joints were caused by arthritis, the results of my change in diet suggest a relationship between the disease and the food we eat.
Back to present day…
I’ve maintained a healthy weight for the last four years by eating well and staying active.
Most of the time I feel pretty limber, except when I overindulge on:
When my joints begin to feel stiff I know I have to reign in the snacking/celebrating.
While my left knee is the only joint to receive an official osteoarthritis diagnosis via an x-ray, I assume the pain and stiffness I occasionally feel in my other knee, my hips, spine and the ring finger on my right hand I jammed several times when I played basketball in high school are also arthritic.
The only reason I went to a doctor about my knee was because I wanted to be sure I hadn’t injured it while hiking a few weeks earlier.
I was relieved to hear the doctor confirm my suspicion about arthritis because I had feared it might be a torn meniscus.
However, I was disappointed by his treatment suggestion. He simply advised me to take Ibuprofen if the pain and stiffness become too uncomfortable.
When I asked if following an anti-inflammatory diet would help he seemed confused by my question. He quickly dismissed the idea that food could have any kind of impact.
This is an example of how doctors often do not consider nutrition when treating disease.
Can Diet Cure Arthritis?
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) claims “new research shows that foods may be a more frequent contributor to arthritis than is commonly recognized.”
PCRM founder and president Dr. Neal Barnard shares an Anti-Arthritis Diet in his book Foods That Fight Pain. He recommends avoiding:
- Dairy products
- Wheat, oats, rye
- Citrus fruits
Healthline.com advises folks with arthritis to avoid:
- Inflammatory foods
- Fried & processed foods
- Grilled or pasteurized foods
- Sugar & refined carbs
- Dairy products
- Alcohol & tobacco
- Salt & preservatives
- Corn oil
Note how both lists advise no dairy – which is why I found it particularly maddening to see Arthritistoday.org recommend low-fat dairy products.
They suggest low-fat dairy products should be included because they are a good source of calcium and vitamin D.
PCRM explains how even low-fat dairy foods are a concern because it’s the dairy protein, rather than the fat that is likely to increase inflammation. So skim products are of no benefit.
There are other ways to get calcium and vitamin D.
Listen to your body
While folks can argue which foods trigger or treat arthritis, I think you have to listen to your own body.
I learned the value of elimination diets when we were trying to identify my daughter’s food allergies.
I also inadvertently went on an elimination diet when I changed my eating habits to lose weight. I experienced fewer achy joints as a bonus.
When I allow a little too much salt, sugar or alcohol to creep back into my diet I feel the results almost immediately.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather treat the source of the inflammation with a healthy diet instead of simply concealing the discomfort with a pill.
The "less serious" possible side effects for Ibuprofen include:
- Upset stomach
- Mild heartburn
- Bloating, gas
- Dizziness, headache
- Skin itching or rash
- Blurred vision
- Ringing in your ears
While the side effects of a healthy diet include:
- Good health
- Controlled weight
- Improved mood
- Disease prevention
- Increased energy
- Greater longevity
If you suffer from arthritis pain, I encourage you to try an elimination diet to identify your trigger foods.
Dr. Neal Barnard offers clear guidelines on how to implement an elimination diet – complete with recipes – in Foods That Fight Pain.
Can diet cure arthritis? I can't say for sure - but it can certainly make a difference!
Other Natural Treatments
Aside from diet, there are other ways to treat arthritis pain naturally:
This is likely to happen automatically if you become more mindful of your diet and has the added bonus of reducing the stress on your joints.
Get more exercise
Regular movement helps to maintain flexibility in your joints.
Use hot and cold therapy
Heat eases stiffness and cold relieves pain.
When my knee was bothering me I would take a warm epsom salt bath after my morning hike and then put an ice pack on it for about 10 minutes when I sat down to work. It seemed to reduce the swelling and increase mobility.
Other options to consider
I hope you found this post helpful. If you suffer from joint stiffness and/or arthritis pain, I invite you to share your experience with natural remedies in the comments section below.
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Which type of exercise would you recommend for arthritis patients?
Hi Richard - I am not a doctor so I can only speak from personal experience. I find walking and gentle stretching and calisthenics (leg lifts, sit-ups, push-ups, etc.) very helpful. I usually do my stretching first thing in the morning. When I walk - I try not to overdue it on hard surfaces. Swimming and bike-riding can also be good - especially if your knees are bothering you. The more you move the less stiff you feel.
I noticed how significantly my condition changed after changing my diet. I'm not cured but feel much better!
Yes - it makes a difference, doesn't it? 🙂
Hi Margaret, Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Recently, I had significant pain in my knees (had to start climbing stairs one step at a time and went from 3-mile intermediate hikes to less than a mile on flat surfaces). I went to the doctors, GP, orthopedist, and PT, and got xrays and an mri thinking it was a torn meniscus, and was diagnosed with osteoarthritis in my left knee (it's also in my right knee). The PT told me to go home and do yoga (which I already do), and I was prescribed medication but no other follow-up to provide management which left me feeling confused and hopeless. So, I started researching and found Dr. Barnard (PCRM site, etc.) and your article. Your experience helped me figure out what I've been eating that most likely brought on such severe inflammation.
I've been on a WFPB diet now for 3 years now (and many of the good foods I eat are on the list of Dr. Barnard's trigger foods). However, after reading your article I realized that the dates with almond butter that I started eating last month (sometimes 4-5 a day) have most likely contributed to the inflammation. I'm going to start my customized management plan by eliminating those two foods from my diet and see how that works first, and if I don't see a substantial improvement in the next few weeks, I'll go on Dr. Barnard's full elimination diet.
I'm also going to use your practice of warm and cold therapy. I've reserved Dr. Barnard's Body in Balance, from the library and I have started reading Body on Fire by Dr. Monica Aggarwal. Along with these books and researching online, your first-hand experience has given me much clarity.
Thank you so much!! If you have any other resources, I'd love to hear about it.
Hi Linda - I'm sorry to hear about your arthritis diagnosis, but glad you found the article helpful. Since I wrote the article I've also found Arnica Gel (https://amzn.to/37Vkk24) helpful in reducing swelling and pain. When my husband's knee bothers him, he rubs it on before bed and then feels better when we walk the next morning.
And, if I had to guess, I'd say the almond butter is more likely causing a problem than the dates. I eat dates on my oatmeal every morning! But everyone is different. Your body will tell you what feels right. Hope you feel better soon!
Thank you (again), Margaret. I will order the arnica cream and see how that works for me. If my symptoms improve, I'll try re-introducing the dates first. One more question... do you have experience with coffee or caffeinated tea causing inflammation?
Hi Linda - I don't drink coffee or caffeinated tea because I'm sensitive to caffeine—it gives me heart palpitations. So I can't speak on whether they cause inflammation. But since you've been WFPB for three years, I'm wondering if you take any supplements, like B12 or D3? If not, you may want to read my article about Plant Based Problems and Solutions. Food sensitivities or nutrient deficiencies can also cause joint pain.
Thank you for your recommendations. I'm on a quest!! I read your article and also got Dr. Barnard's book from the library. I am taking B12 and D3, but not in the forms you suggest... so will try that once my supply is out. I'm already getting around better and feeling better mentally as I find ways to stay pain free (as much as possible). I've also been reading Healing Arthritis by Susan Blum, MD., M.P.H. Her book has some of the same info (although a slightly different diet); she also includes the impact of disease, trauma and stress on the body (which can cause inflammation). Again, much thanks!!