- Researchers say a vegan diet can help decrease the pain from rheumatoid arthritis.
- They say the plant-based diet can do this by reducing inflammation and swelling.
- Experts say you can adapt to a vegan diet slowly by taking initial steps such as eliminating processed and/or red meat from your meals.
Switching to a vegan diet can help decrease the pain and inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis by 53 percent.
That’s according to a new study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine.
The study included 44 adults with rheumatoid arthritis. The participants were put on a vegan diet for 4 weeks. Foods known to cause inflammation were then eliminated for 3 weeks.
In one group, eliminated foods were reintroduced over the course of 9 weeks. In the other group, a supplement phase began.
Researchers suggest that the reduction in swelling and inflammation recorded among participants shows the dietary changes were associated with symptomatic improvements, including reduced swelling and improved pain.
Lon Ben-Asher, MS, RD, LD/N, a nutritionist at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami, Florida, said symptoms associated with arthritis can “absolutely” be managed and improved through modification of eating habits.
“Vegan diets or strict vegetarian eating plans may provide a significant benefit due to their anti-inflammatory properties,” he told Healthline.
Ben-Asher noted that he has witnessed this phenomenon on many occasions at his center.
“Arthritis is an inflammatory condition and as soon as you eliminate the excessive sources of sodium, especially in packaged and highly processed foods, high intakes of saturated fat and trans fat found in red meats and full-fat dairy products, and concentrated sweeteners found in sugar-sweetened beverages and sugary desserts, within a few days many of our guests experience significant relief of symptoms,” he said.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a nutritionist and the author of “Skinny Liver,” explained that rheumatoid arthritis varies in severity from person to person so dietary changes that work for one person might not be as sufficient for another.
“Dietary interventions may be beneficial, but likely cannot manage symptoms alone without alternative traditional medical treatment,” she told Healthline. “However, there are foods that can aggravate symptoms, and removing them can be helpful to those affected by [rheumatoid arthritis].”
“Introducing foods that reinforce gut microbiota and reducing foods that are inflammatory, like sugar and/or gluten, have been beneficial to some patients I have seen with [rheumatoid arthritis],” she added.
Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN, creator of the website “The Plant-Powered Dietitian,” says a plant-based diet is filled with whole plant foods that have a higher level of antioxidant compounds, such as phytochemicals and vitamins.
“These are linked with lowering inflammation, which is at the root of arthritis,” she told Healthline.
Experts say if you’re experiencing rheumatoid arthritis pain, eliminating red and processed meat is a good first step.
“Diets that are high in red and processed meat, processed foods, refined carbs, and saturated fat promote inflammation,” Kirkpatrick said.
She notes a diet low in fat and high in fiber is a key ingredient to reducing inflammation and controlling pain and swelling from rheumatoid arthritis (RA).
“Since inflammation is the main culprit of pain and swelling of RA patients, foods that trigger inflammation in the body should be the first to be eliminated,” she said.
Kirkpatrick’s list of foods to eliminate includes:
- red/red processed meat
- processed foods
- foods with a lot of additives such as hyper-palatable foods (fried foods, convenience foods)
- alcohol (beer, wine, liquor)
- sugary foods and drinks
- gluten-containing carbohydrates for individuals diagnosed with non-celiac gluten intolerance
Ben-Asher adds that any foods high in salt such as crackers, potato chips, and cereals should also be eliminated.
You don’t need to ditch all animal products right away.
Kirkpatrick recommends starting with Michael Pollan’s definition of food as something that comes from nature, is fed from nature, and will eventually rot.
“If it does not fall in the lines of this definition, it is not real food and is not intended to be consumed by the body. Living by this definition at least 80 percent of the time in the store and in your home will really help patients to realize what is best for their body and get them started on a fully plant-based diet, while also helping them feel their best and alleviate symptoms of RA,” Kirkpatrick said.
Experts advise people to go slow, make plants the star, and keep it simple.
Start out slowly with Meatless Monday or a meat-free meal and then keep expanding from there, they suggest.
“Try with foods you are familiar with. For example, if you have a lasagna recipe you love, turn it into a plant-based version,” said Palmer.
And it doesn’t need to be complicated.
“Just make simple swaps, like black bean tacos instead of meat tacos, lentil spaghetti instead of meat spaghetti, tofu stir-fry instead of chicken stir-fry,” she said.
Another strategy is to make vegetables the star of the dish by filling your plate with 50 percent vegetables, and making the animal protein source the supporting cast which only encompasses 25 percent of the plate, says Ben-Asher.