Arthritis, a chronic inflammation of the joints that causes pain and stiffness, affects nearly 53 million Americans, according to the CDC. For people with arthritis, eating a well-balanced diet is essential to help manage symptoms and to maintain a healthy weight. “The biggest recommendation to anyone with an inflammatory form of arthritis is to add a variety of foods shown to be anti-inflammatory to your diet,” says Mahsa Tehrani, MD, a rheumatologist in northern Virginia. Still, eating nutritiously can be costly. Let’s look at some delicious food swaps you can make to go easy on your joints and on your wallet.
Opt for Beans, Not Beef, to Cut Calories and Manage Weight
Ground beef is full of protein, which can help keep you full. But it is also processed and can cause high levels of purines, natural substances found in most foods that convert to uric acid in the body. Gout, a type of arthritis, may occur when excessive levels of uric acid form crystals that gather in the joints and cause pain. What’s more, meats cooked with high heat can trigger inflammation too. For a healthier alternative, swap your ground beef for beans, which are cheaper and full of protein and fiber. Fiber is good for arthritis relief because it may help reduce inflammation. Fiber also helps to reduce C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance produced in the liver that is present in blood when there is inflammation in the body.
Choose Fatty Fish Over Shellfish to Help Manage Arthritis Symptoms
Lobster, shrimp, oysters, and other shellfish have been known to exacerbate a form of arthritis known as gout, and they may also be pricey. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed more than 40,000 men with no incidence of gout over a 12-year period and found that men whose diets were rich in meats and seafood had a higher incidence of gout than those who kept meat and seafood consumption low.
But there are seafood options that are actually good for arthritis. Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which decrease the production of some inflammatory chemicals. They also contain vitamin D, which can decrease joint swelling and pain. Fish oil supplements are also a good option, though some brands may be expensive (always check with your rheumatologist before taking supplements). Another study, published in the Journal of Arthritis and Rheumatology, found that fish oil supplements can significantly reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Swap Out Sugary Snacks for Pain-Fighting Fruit
Quick snacks like granola bars, fruit bars, and potato chips are loaded with simple sugars that increase blood-sugar levels in the body and promote inflammation. The cost of these sweet or savory snacks can also add up over time. Sugar may release cytokines, proteins that are active in the immune system, including the inflammation process. If you need a quick pick-me-up snack, go with fiber-rich fruit such as oranges, strawberries, or cherries. “To save money when buying fruits and vegetables it helps to buy them when they are in season,” says Nina Eng, RD, the chief clinical dietitian at Plainview Hospital Northwell Health in Plainview, New York. “Fruits can be cut up and frozen then used at a later time to make a smoothie,” she says.
Use Olive or Walnut Oil Instead of Corn or Soybean Oil to Help
Sunflower, safflower, corn, and soybean oils all increase omega-6 fatty acids, which can increase inflammation if they are not balanced with enough omega-3 fatty acids. Oils high in omega-6 are used in a lot of baked goods and salad dressings. To avoid getting too much omega-6 in your diet, ask for olive oil and vinegar dressing if you are ordering a salad and try cooking with olive or walnut oil. These healthy oils contain unsaturated fats, which may ease inflammation. On top of that, one report published in the journal Nature concluded that a naturally occurring chemical in olive oil called oleocanthal is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory agent similar to the pain reliever ibuprofen. Buying one high-quality bottle of olive oil is also more cost-effective than purchasing multiple salad dressing bottles.
Replace Refined Carbs With Inflammation-Fighting Whole Grains
Refined carbohydrates are found in a lot of staple foods, including white bread, white rice, and crackers. These carbs, devoid of nutritional value, may increase inflammation-producing compounds in the body. Refined carbs can also contribute to weight gain, which applies pressure to the joints. “Stay away from refined, processed foods as much as possible,” says Tehrani. “The best recommendation is to eat pure foods in their whole form.” When you do opt for prepared or packaged meals, choose wisely. Seek out lean, low-sodium prepackaged dishes such as vegetarian chili or salmon-based frozen meals. A simple and inexpensive switch would be to choose foods like oatmeal, whole-grain cereals, and brown rice. Whole grains reduce levels of CRP in the blood and are also great sources of fiber.
Choose Lean, Calcium-Rich Foods Over Full-Fat Dairy to Help Reduce Flares
Whole dairy products such as milk, yogurt, or cheese are loaded with fat, which can lead to weight gain. Also, research has shown that arthritis can flare up as a result of certain proteins found in dairy. Switching to milk, yogurt, or cheese that is made with soy or almonds is comparable in price to dairy products and will provide you with the same amount of calcium. You can also find calcium in fortified juices or vegetables such as spinach, kale, or broccoli. According to the Arthritis Foundation, “broccoli contains a compound called sulforaphane, which researchers have found could help prevent or slow the progression of osteoarthritis.” If you plan on switching to fortified juices, however, note that apple, orange, and grapefruit juice can block the effects of some arthritis drugs, including Trexall (methotrexate) and Restasis (cyclosporine). What’s more, fruit juices are calorie-dense; drinking them can lead to weight gain.
Ditch the Salt in Favor of Beneficial Spice-Based Seasoning
Investing in quality spices is good for your wallet and your health. Excessive salt intake can worsen other related conditions such as high blood pressure, which could indirectly lead to more inflammation in the body. Although eating salt in moderation is okay, Tehrani notes that it doesn’t have an anti-inflammatory effect.
“Overconsumption leads to many issues,” she says. People with arthritis who take corticosteroids, a drug that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, should especially watch their salt intake because the medication causes people to retain sodium.
If you want to add flavor to your food and reduce inflammation, consider using anti-inflammatory herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, black pepper, and ginger. A study published in November 2012 in the journal Phytotherapy Research found that curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, reduced tenderness and swelling in the joints of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.