- Researchers say there’s more evidence that a plant-based diet can help ease some symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
- They say vegetarian-like diets can reduce inflammation and improve gut health.
- Some experts say just adhering to a plant-based diet isn’t enough. A person must still eat healthy.
- Experts also say plant-based diets may work better for some people with rheumatoid arthritis than others.
Can going vegan or vegetarian — or simply eating more veggies — help people who are living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?
The answer, as it turns out, is… possibly.
A study published this month indicates that a plant-based diet may in fact help with the array of symptoms that come along with RA, which can be severe for the 1.5 million people in the United States living with the condition.
Now, the latest research concludes that a plant-based diet, heavy in vegetables and grains, could possibly be added to the list of potential dietary fixes for RA.
“A plant-based diet comprised of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes may be tremendously helpful for those with rheumatoid arthritis,” Dr. Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, the co-author of the study and director of clinical research for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a statement.
“This study offers hope that with a simple menu change, joint pain, swelling, and other painful symptoms may improve or even disappear.”
Why might plant-based diets work?
As the medical review noted, the reason may be because plant-based diets are shown to reduce inflammation, promote healthy gut bacteria, reduce RA pain and swelling, and reduce obesity or high body mass index.
All of these factors make a difference in the management of RA pain and symptoms.
The new study notes that genetic factors account for 50 to 60 percent of RA risk.
However, it says the other risk factors can be modified, managed, or prevented. These risks include tobacco smoking, unhealthy gut bacteria, and poor nutrition.
“Dietary triggers may play an inciting role in the autoimmune process, and a compromised intestinal barrier may allow food components or microorganisms to enter the blood stream, triggering inflammation,” the researchers wrote.
“In addition, excessive body weight may affect pharmacotherapy response and the likelihood of disease remission, as well as the risk of disease mortality. Evidence suggests that changes in diet might play an important role in RA management and remission,” they wrote.
Kristine Blanche, PhD, CEO of the Integrative Healing Center, doesn’t necessarily agree.
“I have a lot of patients with rheumatoid arthritis on an anti-inflammatory diet,” Blanche told Healthline.
“I do think plant-based can be healthy, but people tend to eat more grains on a plant-based diet. I happen to think due to pesticide exposure the grains in the U.S. are very inflammatory for people,” she said.
“I get much better results on a dairy-free paleo or ketogenic diet in patients with autoimmune disease. I think due to the farming practices in the U.S. the grains are more toxic than clean meat,” Blanche added.
Opinions were also mixed among people with RA who commented to Healthline on a Facebook message board.
Quite a few backed the effectiveness of a plant-based diet.
“I tried it for a month and felt better. Lost 4 pounds too,” Joanna Bullock said.
“Making the switch over slowly,” Melanie Roach said. “It’s helped me to cut out meats one at a time. I started with beef and beef byproducts. It’s helping so far.”
“I’m switching to plant-based now along with intermittent fasting,” added Rebecca Brant. “I’ve always been a beef eater, so this is tough. First I eliminated sugar. That made a huge difference. Then, gluten, and now… all animal products. Whew.”
“I’ve definitely made improvements by eliminating gluten, reducing sugar and carbs, and am considering to go plant-based next,” noted Christine Orlando.
While Jill Ketchup told us, “The best I’ve ever felt was plant-based and doing yoga 5 days a week.”
However, not all people with RA agreed a plant-based diet is helpful.
“I tried it for a couple of months and it didn’t work for me,” Tania Martin said.
“I cut out more than just beef and it has not worked yet,” Compi Rodriguez said.
“I’ve had RA for 30-plus years and have been pescatarian, mostly vegetarian, for about 10. No difference,” added Jennifer Bragg.
“I went vegan for 8 months, didn’t help,” noted Sarah Vernon Rabideau.
As with many dietary and nutritional approaches, a plant-based diet may be effective only on a case-by-case basis.
The Arthritis Foundation notes that the results of various studies about going vegan or vegetarian are mixed.
As Dr. Neal Barnard, FACC, writes on the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine website: “Arthritis does not have to be a one-way street. For many people it responds remarkably well to a change in the menu. The pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints can improve or even go away. ”
People with RA may benefit from simply eliminating certain foods from their diet and keeping track of how they’re feeling.
Apps such as MyFitnessPal, Noom, My Pain Diary, and Apple Health can help people keep track of what they’re eating and even record how they’re feeling afterward.
“Adding fruits and vegetables, healthy herbs and spices, and lots of water has been more beneficial for my arthritis rather than anything I’ve eliminated from my diet,” said Josie Kuhns, an Oregon resident.
“I just try to eat healthy and clean when I can. Moderation is what it’s all about for me. My RA thanks me when I treat my body right.”