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

A few simple changes to your eating habits and lifestyle can help to reduce the effects of arthritis

Foods to avoid with arthritis
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If, like 54 million Americans, you suffer with arthritis, you’ll be all too familiar with the joint pain and discomfort that can result.

There are many different types of arthritis but the most common forms are:

  • Osteoarthritis (OA), which typically develops from your mid-forties onwards. While it was once considered ‘wear and tear’, it’s now also known to be an inflammatory condition.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease in which your immune system mistakenly attacks the cells that line your joints, making them swollen, stiff and painful, and, over time, damaging them. 

Your doctor may recommend treatments, including physiotherapy and medication, if necessary. But lifestyle is key to managing arthritis, too. And diet’s a big part of that. 

The bulk of evidence suggests a Mediterranean diet is best for managing symptoms of arthritis. Based on fresh fruit and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, seeds, whole grains, some oily fish and a little red wine, it can help control the inflammation that drives arthritis. 

It can also help you keep to a healthy weight – and has been shown to be heart-healthy, which is important as the inflammation linked with arthritis can also raise your risk of cardiovascular disease.

But just as there are beneficial foods to include, there are also some foods to avoid with arthritis, as they may aggravate joint symptoms. Here are some of the key foods to reduce if you have arthritis. 

1. Sugar

Sugary foods such as cakes and biscuits can change the way your immune system responds to disease and can worsen inflammation, according to one piece of research. Plus, sugary foods are usually high in calories and low in nutrients, and are linked to weight gain – bad news for your joints and your heart. If you just can't imagine life without the sweet stuff, check out our guide to the best sugar substitutes

2. Meat

A plant-based diet has been shown to be beneficial for easing symptoms of arthritis. Conversely, meat seems to aggravate inflammation. One study found when people followed a diet that was vegan, vegetarian or pesco-vegetarian (no meat but some fish), the inflammatory markers in their bodies dropped significantly. Eating meat, however, kept inflammation levels raised. Red meat is high in saturated fat, which is linked to high cholesterol and heart disease, so that’s another reason to cut it out or at least cut it right down.

3. Dairy

Some people with arthritis have found following a vegan diet – with no animal products at all, including dairy – helps control their symptoms. And one study found people who avoided animal milk products experienced less inflammation and fewer symptoms.

The evidence is mixed, as other research has shown milk has anti-inflammatory properties. However, that study still found milk is likely to be pro-inflammatory if you’re intolerant to lactose – and lots of us are. 

4. Fried foods

Watch how many of these you consume – research shows foods cooked at high temperatures, such as grilled and fried foods, produce toxins called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are linked with inflammation and may worsen arthritis symptoms. This doesn’t mean you can never eat chips again – but it’s worth minimising foods cooked in this way.

5. Omega-6 fats

These are found in a range of foods, including lots of vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil. Omega-6 fatty acids are not in themselves unhealthy – in fact, they’re essential as part of a balanced diet. The problem starts when you have excess amounts, particularly in relation to omega-3 fats, found in foods such as oily fish and select fish oil supplements. A high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats is pro-inflammatory in the body. Read more about why you should up your omega-3 intake - and cut down on omega-6, or check out our guide to omega-3 foods.

6. Salt

You probably know too much salt is bad for you. And it can aggravate arthritis symptoms, too – studies have linked excess salt with RA flares. Plus, it’s one of the worst culprits for raising blood pressure. As arthritis considerably increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, it’s particularly important to keep blood pressure down. The best way to reduce salt is to avoid too many processed foods, which tend to be high in it, and to add flavouring to your own cooking with herbs and spices instead. 

Charlotte Haigh
Charlotte Haigh

Charlotte Haigh has been a health writer for 20 years, contributing to a range of national magazines and newspapers. She writes about all aspects of wellness, from nutrition to fitness, and has a special interest in psychedelics and mental health. Charlotte is Chair of the Guild of Health Writers, which represents leading UK health writers. In her spare time, she enjoys vegan cookery, yoga and birdwatching. She lives in south-west London with her two cats.