By Maddy Biddulph published
A joint is a part of the body where two or more bones meet to allow movement. So it’s not surprising that any damage to the joints from disease, injury or overuse can interfere with how we move, and can be very painful.
If this sounds all too familiar and you’re fed up with living with aching knees, hips or shoulders, you’re in the right place. As well as the best supplements for joints, which contains concentrated extracts of many of the foods listed below, we’ve lined up the experts to reveal the best whole foods to eat to reduce joint pain and inflammation.
“Joint pain can be felt in multiple parts of the body. Illness, age, weight, previous injuries, overuse and other medical conditions can all be factors of joint pain,” says nutritional therapist Ami Sheward. “Wrists, knees, hips, and hands are among the most commonly affected joints. Osteoarthritis causes joint discomfort due to the breakdown of the cartilage that acts as a cushion and shock absorber for the joints.
“Repetitive motion can also induce tendonitis, which is a type of joint pain. Tendons are thick cords that connect the muscles to the bones. Tendonitis is a condition that occurs when tendons become irritated or inflamed. It causes severe pain and sensitivity, making movement of the afflicted joint difficult.”
Causes of joint pain
Joint pain is extremely common, especially as you age - about a quarter of Americans suffer with it, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can affect any part of the body, from ankles and feet to shoulders and hands. But what causes joint pain? Some causes of joint pain include:
- Osteoarthritis - a “wear and tear” disease and the most common type of arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis - an autoimmune disorder that happens when the body attacks its own tissues
- Strains, sprains, and other injuries – from accidents, over-exercising or bad technique when training
- Bursitis - when sacs of fluid that help cushion joints get inflamed
- Gout - a form of arthritis that tend to affect the big toe joint
If you’re suffering from joint pain, the area that hurts might be swollen, inflamed, stiff and difficult to move, and what you eat, and even how much you weigh, plays a role in joint health.
“Diet has an impact on chronic inflammation, associated with both types of arthritis (inflamed joints), but so does being a healthy weight,” says Harriet Holme, nutritionist and Eating for Health podcast host.
“Being overweight means you are more likely to develop osteoarthritis, both because of the increased chronic inflammation and load bearing from the extra weight.”
How diet affects joint pain
“Inflammation is the body’s natural immune response to infections and damage, and as a result, it is critical to your health,” says Sheward. “However, compounds found in certain foods can trigger the body to produce chemicals that cause inflammation in the joints and muscles, causing discomfort in the knees, back and other areas.”
Sugar, for example, triggers the release of cytokines, inflammatory messengers that contribute to inflammation and swelling of the joints. Sugar often has a different name on the ingredients list – and can be labeled as corn syrup, fructose, sucrose and maltose – so avoid this if you want to reduce joint pain.
“Processed foods, trans fats, processed meat, omega-6s and refined carbohydrates have a similar negative effect on joint health and have been linked to inflammation,” says Sheward. By contrast, omega-3 fatty acids can improve joint pain by reducing the production of molecules and substances linked to inflammation, such as inflammatory eicosanoids and cytokines, says Ami.
The good news is that studies have shown that there is a direct correlation between higher omega-3 intake and lower inflammation. Another study by the Journal of the National Medical Association found that patients taking cod liver oils reported reduced joint pain and increased grip strength.
“Your everyday routine can have a big impact on the health and longevity of your joints. A well-balanced, healthy diet will provide the body with the tools it requires to prevent further joint damage, which is critical for people suffering from joint pain,” says Sheward.
“Some foods have been shown to lower inflammation in the body, and eating an anti-inflammatory diet can improve symptoms. Including specific foods and spices in the diet can strengthen the bones, muscles, and joints and help the body to fight inflammation and disease.”
Foods to improve joint pain
Top of the list is oily fish, which is packed with joint-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
“These polyunsaturated fats have anti-inflammatory properties so they may benefit people with joint pain,” says Sheward. Try to eat oily fish twice a week or take supplements if your vegetarian or vegan.
Sheward also recommends adding turmeric to food. “This is a spice with a strong, earthy flavour that’s often used in curries and other Indian dishes. It has received a lot of attention for its content of curcumin, a powerful anti-inflammatory nutrient.”
Studies found that garlic can help fight inflammation and reduce joint pain. Like onions and leeks, it contains diallyl disulfide, an anti-inflammatory compound that limits the effects of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Therefore, garlic can help fight inflammation and may even help prevent cartilage damage from arthritis.
Holme says a Mediterranean style diet can help improve joint health and pain. She recommends swapping saturated animal fat for unsaturated fat such as extra virgin olive oil, rapeseed oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, which are all anti-inflammatory.
“Ditch refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice) in favour of wholegrains (brown rice, brown bread, millet, bulgur wheat), which is good for gut health,” says Holme. Studies found that the gut microbiome influences the balance of inflammatory responses in our digestive system and affects the immune system.
So basically, if you have poor gut health, you are more likely to suffer from inflammatory conditions including rheumatoid arthritis.
That’s why Holme also recommends eating lots of gut-friendly fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir, to reduce inflammation, and in turn, decrease joint pain.
“Dark fruit including cherries, blackberries and raspberries are loaded with antioxidants and anthocyanins and carotenoids, which give berries their deep color,” says nutritional therapist Sheward. “These compounds also help rid the body of free radicals that promote inflammation and help fight disease and certain cancers.”
Sheward says: “Research shows that vitamin K-rich leafy greens like spinach and kale reduce inflammation, as do broccoli and cabbage.” Try and eat some leafy greens every day for maximum results.
Maddy is a freelance journalist specializing in fitness, health and wellbeing content. She has been a writer and editor for 22 years, and has worked for some of the UK's bestselling newspapers and women’s magazines, including Marie Claire, The Sunday Times and Closer. She also manages Fit&Well's Instagram account.
Maddy loves HIIT training and can often be found working out while her two young daughters do matching burpees or star jumps. As a massive foodie, she loves cooking and trying out new healthy recipes (especially ones with hidden vegetables so the kids eat them). She makes a mean margarita and has twice won awards in previous staff jobs as the “office feeder”.
Maddy is currently completing a diploma in Level 3 personal training and can’t wait to help other busy mums like her feel energized and confident in how they look and feel.
The time you're eating affects how much weight you can lose, here's why
Weight Loss Shifting dinner forward by a few hours can make your weight loss program more effective
By James Frew • Published
This shoulder workout with dumbbells will build bigger arms
Workout Improve strength and definition in your arms with this five move dumbbell workout
By Jessica Downey • Published