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27th November, 20205 min read

Rheumatoid arthritis diet: What are the best foods to eat?

Medical reviewer:Healthily's medical team
Author:Alex Bussey
Last reviewed: 27/11/2020
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term health condition that affects your joints. It normally develops when your immune system makes a mistake and attacks the healthy cells that line your joints. This causes inflammation that can make your joints feel swollen, stiff and painful.

It’s not clear why some people develop rheumatoid arthritis, but experts say it might be a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as being obese or smoking cigarettes.

If you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you might find yourself searching for ways to treat or improve the condition at home.

It’s normally managed with steroids, painkillers and anti-rheumatic medications like methotrexate, which is prescribed by a doctor. Speak to a pharmacist or doctor for further guidance about these medications and how to get and use them.

But evidence also suggests you might be able to improve some of your symptoms by changing your diet.

In fact, the British Dietetic Association says eating the right foods could be key to reducing some of the inflammatory damage that causes joint pain and stiffness.

It’s important to remember you can’t treat or cure rheumatoid arthritis with changes to your diet. You should also talk to a doctor before making any changes as they'll be able to tell you whether it’s a safe option and advise you of any possible complications.

How can your diet help with rheumatoid arthritis?

Some foods are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties, which means that they may help to interrupt (or alter) the chemical processes that make your joints feel swollen and painful.

What foods can help with rheumatoid arthritis?

Groups like the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS) say it may help to eat a diet that’s rich in the following nutrients:

Omega-3

There’s some evidence to show that some Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation, which means they may help to reduce joint pain and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis.

The 2 most beneficial types of omega-3 fatty acid are thought to be docosahexaenoic acid (or DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (or EPA).

These fatty acids are found in oily fish like:

  • herring
  • mackerel
  • sardines
  • salmon

You’ll also find a small amount of Omega-3 in:

  • walnuts
  • flax seeds
  • vegetable oils

But these plant sources are thought to have a limited benefit.

The British Dietetic Association says people with rheumatoid arthritis should try to eat at least 2 portions of oily fish a week. You can also try taking a high-dose fish oil supplement, but it’s important to make sure the supplement you choose has 500mg to 1000mg of EPA and DHA fats per capsule.

Iron

When rheumatoid arthritis flares up, it can interfere with the way your body absorbs iron. Over time, this can lead to conditions like iron-deficiency anaemia, which can make you feel very run down and tired.

Try to eat plenty of iron-rich foods like:

  • eggs
  • lean red meat
  • peas
  • beans
  • leafy green vegetables
  • fortified breakfast cereals or breads

Calcium

Rheumatoid arthritis is often treated with steroids called glucocorticoids. But these medications can affect how well your body absorbs calcium. So, it's important to add more of this essential nutrient to your diet if you're using these medications.

Good sources of calcium include:

  • milk, yogurt and cheese
  • leafy green vegetables, like spinach, kale and broccoli

Antioxidants

The inflammation caused by rheumatoid arthritis produces unstable molecules called free radicals, which can damage your cells.

But antioxidants can bind to these molecules, reducing the damage they cause and allowing your body to remove them safely.

These antioxidants are found in many fruits and vegetables, but they’re more concentrated in varieties that are brightly-coloured such as:

  • apricots
  • mangoes
  • carrots
  • peppers
  • red onions
  • tomatoes

These fruits and vegetables are also low in calories and high in important vitamins, so try to make them a large part of your diet.

Little is known about the effectiveness of man-made antioxidant supplements, but experts say there’s no evidence to support the idea that they can be used to treat or cure chronic diseases.

What about raw food diets, gelatin or a dairy-free diet?

There’s little or no evidence to suggest that raw food, vegan or dairy-free diets help to reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

There’s also no evidence to support some rumours that eating gin-soaked raisins, gelatin or cider vinegar will improve your condition.

Try to focus on eating healthy, whole foods like fresh fruit and vegetables, fish, lean meat and wholemeal (or unprocessed) carbohydrates to help improve your symptoms at home.

Key points

  • rheumatoid arthritis is a long-term health condition that affects your joints
  • you might be able to improve some of your symptoms by changing your diet
  • some foods are thought to have anti-inflammatory properties
  • there’s little evidence that raw food, vegan or dairy-free diets help reduce symptoms
  • foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids, iron, calcium and antioxidants are all recommended
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