Some foods and drinks may increase the risk of arthritis or make symptoms worse, for instance, highly processed foods and sweetened drinks.

If you have arthritis, making the right dietary choices can not only help manage your symptoms but also reduce the risk of complications, help boost your overall well-being, and improve your quality of life.

There are over 100 types of arthritis, but osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common. Other types include rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic arthritis (PsA), and gout.

They all involve some degree of inflammation.

What you choose to eat and drink with arthritis may affect your symptoms and overall well-being. Here, learn about some foods and beverages to avoid if you have arthritis.

1. Added sugars

Everyone can benefit from limiting their sugar intake, and especially if they have arthritis. Added sugars are found in candy, soda, ice cream, and numerous other foods, including barbecue sauce, salad dressings, and ketchup.

In a study involving 217 people with RA, participants noted that among 20 foods, sugar-sweetened soda and desserts seemed most likely to worsen their symptoms.

What to know about added sugars

2. Processed and red meats

Some research links red meat and processed meat to inflammation, which may increase arthritis symptoms.

For example, people who eat a lot of processed and red meats may have higher levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), C-reactive protein (CRP), and homocysteine. These are markers of inflammation.

The study in 217 people with RA mentioned above also found that red meat commonly worsened RA symptoms.

A 2019 review concluded that plant-based diets that exclude red meat may improve arthritis symptoms.

Meanwhile, research published in 2022 found a link between a higher risk of RA and consumption of processed meats, compared with fish and seafood. However, the authors found no link between RA and red meat or poultry.

More research is needed.

Is it healthy to eat meat?

3. Gluten-containing foods

Gluten is a group of proteins in wheat, barley, rye, and other cereals. Some research has linked it to increased inflammation and suggests that going gluten-free may ease arthritis symptoms.

People with celiac disease also have a higher risk of RA than those without celiac disease.

Some limited research has suggested that a gluten-free, vegan diet might reduce disease activity and improve inflammation.

However, more research is needed to confirm whether a gluten-free diet will benefit people with arthritis.

Can gluten affect arthritis?

4. Highly processed foods

Ultra-processed items — such as fast food, breakfast cereal, and baked goods — tend to be high in refined grains, added sugar, preservatives, fructose, and other potentially inflammatory ingredients, all of which may worsen arthritis symptoms.

Research suggests that highly processed foods may increase your risk of RA by contributing to inflammation and obesity, which is also a risk factor for RA.

What’s more, in a study in 56 people with RA, those who ate higher amounts of ultra-processed food showed increased heart disease risk factors, including higher levels of glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), a long-term marker of blood sugar control.

As such, processed foods may worsen your overall health and increase your risk of other diseases.

How to swap highly processed foods for healthier options

6. Certain vegetable oils

Diets high in omega-6 fats and low in omega-3 fats may worsen symptoms of knee pain, which is common with OA and RA.

These fats are necessary for health, but an imbalance may increase the risk of inflammation.

Omega-3 is present in oily fish, oily seeds, and green vegetables, while omega-6 occurs in margarines, vegetable shortening, and cooking oils such as corn and safflower.

Ensuring a balance between these types of oils may improve arthritis symptoms.

Tip: Use olive oil as an example of an oil that is low in omega-6 FA, while increasing fatty fish intake to help optimize omega-6 to omega-3 ratio.

Are vegetable and seed oils bad for you?

7. Foods high in salt

Cutting back on salt may be good for people with arthritis.

Foods high in salt include shrimp, canned soup, pizza, certain cheeses, processed meats, and numerous other processed items.

A 2019 mouse study found that arthritis was more severe in mice that consumed a high salt diet than in those whose diet had less salt.

Research has also suggested that a high sodium intake may be a risk factor for autoimmune diseases like inflammatory arthritis in people. One factor could be that salt stimulates immunological processes that lead to inflammation.

Meanwhile, a 2015 study linked a high sodium intake to an increased risk of RA. The study looked at data for 18,555 people.

How much salt do you need?

8. Foods high in AGEs

Dietary advanced glycation end products (AGEs) are molecules created through reactions between sugars and proteins or fats. They exist naturally in uncooked animal foods and are formed through certain cooking methods.

Foods that are high in AGEs include:

  • high protein, high fat animal foods that are fried, roasted, grilled, seared, or broiled, such as:
    • bacon
    • pan-fried or grilled steak
    • roasted or fried chicken
    • broiled hot dogs
  • fries
  • American cheese
  • margarine
  • mayonnaise

When AGEs accumulate in high amounts in your body, oxidative stress and inflammation may occur. Oxidative stress and AGE formation are linked to disease progression in people with arthritis.

People with inflammatory arthritis — such as RA — may have higher levels of AGEs in their bodies than those without. AGE accumulation in bones and joints may play a role in the development and progression of OA.

Replacing high AGE foods with nutritious, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes, and fish may reduce the total AGE load in your body.

What are AGE foods and how can you swap them out in your diet?

1. Red wine and other alcohol

It’s true that red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant that may have health benefits. However, any alcohol use has its downsides.

More research is needed to confirm the role that alcohol plays in arthritis, but scientists don’t recommend drinking alcohol as a way to prevent arthritis or manage its symptoms.

For instance:

  • Drinking alcohol once a week or more may increase the risk of OA.
  • Alcohol consumption increases levels of uric acid in the body, which can contribute to gout.
  • A 2019 study suggested that alcohol intake may increase spinal structural damage in people with axial spondyloarthritis.
  • Research from 2021 found a link between developing alcohol consumption and RA in females, although not in males.

In brief, it’s best to limit your alcohol consumption as it may worsen arthritis symptoms.

What’s the link between alcohol and RA?

2. Sugar-sweetened drinks

Sugary beverages, like sodas, may significantly increase your risk of arthritis.

In a study in 1,209 adults ages 20–30, those who drank fructose-sweetened beverages five times per week or more were three times likelier to have arthritis than those who consumed few to no fructose-sweetened drinks.

Drinks containing fructose may also lead to an increase in uric acid levels, which can worsen gout.

Sodas and other sweetened drinks contain sugar, aspartame, and phosphoric acid, which can also affect the body’s ability to absorb calcium, which is necessary for bone health.

Is fructose in fruit bad for you?

3. Coffee

According to the Arthritis Foundation (AF), it’s not clear whether coffee is good for people with arthritis or not. On the one hand, it contains antioxidants that may help reduce inflammation. On the other hand, people should be mindful of the caffeine content.

If you like a cup of coffee, it’s best to:

  • consume no more than 1–2 cups per day
  • avoid drinking coffee too soon before bedtime
  • avoid adding too much sugar, syrup, or cream to coffee

How does caffeine affect your body?

4. Milk

Some people find that milk and other dairy products trigger an inflammatory reaction, but this is not true for everyone. If you can tolerate milk, it is a good source of vitamin D and calcium.

Choose low or zero-fat dairy products to lower the risk of weight gain and unhealthy fats.

What are the pros and cons of cow’s milk?

What are the 5 worst foods for arthritis?

The 5 top foods or food ingredients to avoid with arthritis are:

  1. trans fats (partially hydrogenated vegetable oils): they can trigger inflammation and are also bad for your heart
  2. gluten: people with arthritis may improve their symptoms on a gluten-free diet
  3. refined carbohydrates: they can increase inflammation
  4. refined sugars: refined sugars, such as high-fructose corn syrup, can increase inflammation; they’re found in candy, soda, ice cream, and numerous other processed foods
  5. processed and fried foods: especially those high in advanced glycation end products (AGPs), such as bacon, grilled steak, roasted or fried chicken, mayonnaise, and French fries

You should also consider limiting or avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages, red wine, and other alcohol. It’s worth noting that excessive salt intake has also been associated with a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially in those who smoke.

What foods are best to eat with arthritis?

A balanced diet that provides a range of antioxidants and other nutrients is most likely beneficial for anyone with arthritis. This means a focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy oils, such as olive oil. Consider trying a Mediterranean Diet.

Are bananas good or bad for arthritis?

Bananas are good for arthritis as they contain antioxidants, which can help decrease inflammation, and potassium, which can help strengthen bones.

What fruits and vegetables are not good for arthritis?

Some people say that eggplants, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers seem to worsen arthritis pain and inflammation. These are all part of the nightshade family and contain solanine. However, there is no scientific evidence to confirm this, and these foods offer a range of essential nutrients.

Some experts believe that citrus fruits, such as lemons, may not be helpful, but other evidence suggests the flavonoids in citrus fruits may be beneficial due to their anti-inflammatory properties. More research is needed.

If you have arthritis, a healthy diet and lifestyle may help improve your symptoms.

Research suggests avoiding certain foods and beverages, including highly processed foods, red meat, fried foods, alcohol, and anything with added sugars.

Keep in mind that lifestyle factors like your activity level, body weight, and smoking status are also vital to managing arthritis.

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