Six foods to avoid with arthritis: is your diet adding to your pain?

A few simple changes to your eating habits can help to support your joints. But are there any foods to avoid with arthritis?

woman with arthritis pain in her hands
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you have arthritis you may be looking for dietary ways to support your joints and manage your condition. But are there any foods that you should avoid with arthritis? 

There are several types of arthritis, some, like rheumatoid arthritis, are autoimmune and can be worsened by inflammatory factors, such as smoking or red meat. Others are more mechanical conditions, like osteoarthritis, where the pads between bones (also known as cartilage) is worn away by pressure and movement, causing pain and discomfort. Gout and pseudogout fall somewhere between, being inflammatory but not an autoimmune condition. 

But with arthritis are there any foods that you should definitely avoid, and to what degree can you control your symptoms with diet? We’ve shared everything you need to know below. And if you’re looking for additional ways to support joint pain, check out our guide to the best supplements for joints.

How does diet impact arthritis?

A 2020 study in Cells found that diet may be a factor that influences symptoms in patients with inflammatory and autoimmune types of arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, those with osteoarthritis may find that diets that keep their weight down help to control their symptoms, as weight-bearing joints are not put under as much pressure. 

There is a strong link between obesity and osteoarthritis, according to a study in Maturitas. Bearing this in mind, reducing weight by following a diet such as the Mediterranean diet can help to protect cartilage and potentially prevent or delay the development of osteoarthritis.  

Laura Clark, a dietician and nutrition consultant, told us the best ways to eat to reduce inflammation. 

“There is no such thing as an anti-inflammatory diet as such, but there are certainly foods that carry an anti-inflammatory effect within the body,” she explains. “For example, diets rich in fibre and phytochemicals – compounds from plant-based foods – are associated with reduced inflammation and oxidative stress on the body. This is in keeping with the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on a variety of plant-based foods, from different sources. This sort of diet supports diversity of bacteria in the gut, which is also beneficial for protecting the body.”

If you’re looking for inspiration for some good anti-inflammatory foods, check out these eight foods to improve your joint pain.

Foods to avoid with arthritis

1. Refined sugar

Sugar comes in several different forms, some in natural sources, such as fruit, or broken down from complex carbohydrates into simpler forms by our bodies during digestion. However, in the west we consume a lot of refined sugar as an additive, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which one study in Nutrients indicated can increase inflammatory markers in the body. This makes it potentially problematic for those with inflammatory arthritis such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout. 

Another review in JASN also indicated that our consumption of dietary sugar is causing an increase in metabolic syndrome in adults, which leads to secondary issues such as obesity. Being overweight can put further pressure on the joints of those with osteoarthritis. 

While it may seem like a mammoth task to avoid sugar everywhere in our diets, natural sources, such as fruit sugars, aren’t as problematic as ‘free sugars’ found in refined sugar. 

Struggling to tame your sweet tooth? Try these 6 sweet alternatives.

2. Heavily processed meats 

Research from the National Library of Medicine has shown that meats processed through smoking, curing with nitrates or cooking at high temperatures, can raise inflammatory markers in the body when consumed. This could be particularly bad for those with inflammatory arthritis conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. 

If you’re looking to reduce the amount of processed meat in your diet, check out our round up of the best vegan cookbooks for some plant-based inspiration.

3. Alcohol

We all know that alcohol has inflammatory properties, but did you know that excessive consumption can actually make particular types of arthritis worse? A review in the National Library of Medicine indicates that drinking lots of beer and liquor can increase the incidence of gout, particularly in older men, although the study is unclear on how much is too much. Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis caused by the crystallisation of uric acid around the joints. 

4. Salt and preservatives 

A study in the National Library of Medicine found that mice fed a high-salt diet showed an increase in inflammation. Another study in Nutrients found that dietary factors can influence the way rheumatoid arthritis develops, with particular focus on the harmful effects caused by consumption of too much red meat and salt. 

Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a particular problem for those with rheumatoid arthritis, according to a study in Autoimmunity Reviews, due to some steroid-based arthritis medications. With this in mind, it is advisable to reduce your overall salt intake as a preventative measure if you have rheumatoid arthritis, as your risk of developing hypertension is higher than the average person. 

5. Some vegetable oils 

A study in Arthritis Care and Research has shown that overconsumption of omega-6 fatty acids, found in some vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, corn oil and soybean oil, can worsen arthritis symptoms. However, when consumed carefully in balance with omega-3 fatty acids, a study in the National Library of Medicine found that arthritis symptoms were not exacerbated. 

Ensuring that you are getting enough omega-3 is the best way to limit potential negative effects of omega-6, so make sure you are consuming lots of oily fish and eggs. 

“Omega-3 supplementation is recommended if you don't consume oily fish once or twice a week,” adds Clark. Our guide to the best fish oil supplements includes our top picks. Plus, read more about why you should up your omega-3 intake - and cut down on omega-6.

6. Gluten 

You may roll your eyes at another reason to reduce your gluten intake, but a review in the Journal of Community Hospital Internal Perspectives suggests that people with celiac disease are unfortunately at higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. In addition to this, a report in Oxford Rheumatology found that those on vegan and gluten-free diets saw an improvement in their symptoms.

Try these three days of gluten-free meal ideas if you’re looking for a place to start. However, it’s always best to consult a registered nutrition profession or your doctor before cutting certain foods out of your diet.

Lou Mudge
Fitness Writer

Lou Mudge is a Health Writer at Future Plc, working across Fit&Well and Coach. She previously worked for Live Science, and regularly writes for and Pet's Radar. Based in Bath, UK, she has a passion for food, nutrition and health and is eager to demystify diet culture in order to make health and fitness accessible to everybody.

Multiple diagnoses in her early twenties sparked an interest in the gut-brain axis and the impact that diet and exercise can have on both physical and mental health. She was put on the FODMAP elimination diet during this time and learned to adapt recipes to fit these parameters, while retaining core flavors and textures, and now enjoys cooking for gut health.