Eat Your Way To Better Knees
The idea that you can combat some of the worst symptoms of arthritis joint pain with simple dietary tweaks is great in theory – but there has been little or no evidence to back it up. Going online for information is confusing, with hundreds of websites promising to help us ‘beat arthritis’ but amounting to little more than fake health news.
Now however, emerging scientific research is shedding light on the relationship between what we eat and how it really can affect our joint health, both now and in the future. From anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables to immune-boosting bacteria, there are a lot of changes you can make to your diet that could help reduce pain and protect your joints.
Philip Calder, Professor of Nutritional Immunology at the University of Southampton, and an expert in dietary approaches to arthritis, explains: ‘Essentially, the most optimal diet is full of anti-inflammatory compounds and limits the foods that promote inflammation in the body. It has been shown that this type of diet offers overall health benefits and can help relieve the pain of joint disease.’
High levels of antioxidants are also thought to contribute to the anti-inflammatory effect of the diet, by counteracting the effect of naturally occurring compounds called free radicals in the body, which can cause cell damage. Margaret Rayman, Professor of Nutritional Medicine at the University of Surrey, says: ‘Patients with chronic joint problems will likely need more antioxidants than most, to help counter the damaging effects of inflammation.’
Here are some of the food categories recommended:
A new area of research points to the importance of gut health when managing arthritis, particularly in those with rheumatoid arthritis. A University of Rochester study in the US found that mice put on a junk food diet, and who had high levels of ‘bad’ bacteria in their digestive system, developed osteoarthritis. Mice that ate probiotic foods – those that encourage healthy gut bacteria growth – did not develop the problem.
‘Research into the microbiome is fascinating, and shows enormous promise,’ says Professor Rayman. ‘More work needs to be carried out to fully understand the relationship between the gut, immune function and joint health, but it wouldn’t do any harm to incorporate probiotic foods into your diet.’
Probiotic foods – those rich in healthy bacteria – include natural yogurt, cottage cheese, parmesan cheese, sauerkraut, and pickled vegetables (ideally in brine, not vinegar).
Believe it or not, a bowl of oats a day could help diminish the pain of osteoarthritis.
‘Patients with osteoarthritis are more likely to have raised cholesterol levels and there is some evidence that lowering those levels can reduce pain,’ explains Prof Rayman. ‘Of course, this will have a positive knock-on effect on heart health, too.’
If you’re not a fan of oats, add a daily 30g of nuts or 25g of soya protein into your diet, which can be found in soy milk and edamame beans
In the Chingford Study, the longest running osteoarthritis study in the world that began in 1989, knee pain has been significantly associated with raised cholesterol. Dietary changes can reduce ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol by around 35 per cent, equivalent to a low dose of cholesterol-busting statins.
Oily fish can help ease joint pain because it’s rich in omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. ‘Fish oils have been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body and to reduce pain, particularly in those with rheumatoid arthritis,’ says Professor Calder.
It’s generally recommended that you should aim to eat one or two portions a week. Oily fish include mackerel, salmon and tuna (although not tinned tuna). If you don’t like fish – or suffer from gout, a form of arthritis where uric acid builds up in the joints, and need to limit your intake – you can supplement your diet with fish-oil capsules. One to two capsules should supply the recommended daily 450mg of EPA and DHA. ‘This is the amount used in one trial that reduced pain and improved function in patients with knee osteoarthritis, and boosted their heart health,’ adds Prof Rayman.
Finally, try to swap out oils containing omega-6 polyunsaturated fats because these can promote inflammation. These include sunflower, corn, and grapeseed oils. Use olive oil and rapeseed oil in cooking or salad dressings.
Iron Rich Foods
Arthritis can raise the risk of anaemia, a deficiency of red blood cells, which are essential for carrying oxygen around the body. Symptoms include feeling tired, dizzy and generally listless.
In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, anaemia can arise because chronic inflammation in the body and long-term use of anti-inflammatory drugs sap the body of iron. However if you have rheumatoid arthritis and think you’re anaemic, speak to your doctor before taking a supplement, as it may cause liver complications.
Some iron rich foods are red meat, eggs, green leafy vegetables, fortified breakfast cereals, beans and lentils.
Arthritis makes you more susceptible to developing osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones. ‘This is in part because inflammation in the joint can make it difficult for calcium to reach the bone, putting it at risk of crumbling,’ says Ms Collins.
Calcium also plays a role in the immune system and, according to a study by the University of Bristol, tissue repair.The recommended daily amount of 700mg can easily be obtained from three portions of dairy a day.
Soya milk is also enriched with calcium, although organic versions will not be fortified with the mineral. Other sources include green leafy vegetables, almonds and fish where you eat the bones, such as sardines and pilchards.