The Best Diet for Osteoarthritis
Find out how a specific diet plan can help you manage osteoarthritis symptoms, which foods work best, and how to maintain a healthy weight.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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If you're one of the 27 million Americans with osteoarthritis, you know that the goals of osteoarthritis treatment are to relieve pain and maintain joint function. Experts say the best way to manage osteoarthritis is by educating yourself about the disease, making helpful lifestyle changes, and using medication if needed. And one of the best lifestyle choices for easing osteoarthritis pain is maintaining a healthy diet.
“A goal of active participation in your osteoarthritis disease treatment should be to reduce pain and inflammation and increase movement and function without dependence on medication,” says Carol Wolin-Riklin, MA, licensed dietitian and nutrition coordinator at the University of Texas Medical School, in Houston, Texas. “This may be achieved through weight loss and natural supplements.”
Osteoarthritis Diet: Controlling Symptoms
Being overweight by just 10 pounds increases the stress on your knee joints by the equivalent of 30 to 60 pounds with each step you take. Studies show that losing weight can keep your osteoarthritis from getting worse and can reduce osteoarthritis pain symptoms.
“Weight reduction helps to alleviate pressure placed on joints during physical activity and may also help reduce circulating cytokines that promote inflammation,” notes Wolin-Riklin. Cytokines are proteins that stimulate swelling and inflammation, and research has shown that fat cells are a key source of cytokines in the body.
A healthy diet combined with exercise is the most effective therapy to achieve weight loss. If you have severe osteoarthritis, you can still find ways to exercise while sitting or in a swimming pool. “Nonimpact exercise is better tolerated. Exercise will promote the loss of fat and help you to maintain lean muscle mass,” says Wolin-Riklin.
Osteoarthritis Diet: The Importance of Fiber
Pain is a common symptom in osteoarthritis. When nonmedical ways to reduce pain, such as heating pads and massage, aren’t doing enough, your doctor may prescribe opiate medications for pain. Opiates relieve pain by blocking pain receptors in your brain, but they also block the muscle cells in your digestive tract and can cause constipation. Though there are also medications to ease constipation, notes Wolin-Riklin, “relying on laxatives to help treat constipation may create a dependence on these medications. Nonmedical ways to promote bowel health are better.” She recommends:
- Adding fiber supplementsto your diet.
- Eating a diet rich in foods that contain fibersuch as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
- Drinking plenty of water.This can help prevent constipation. “You should be drinking 48 to 64 ounces of fluid daily unless you have a medical condition that limits fluid intake,” says Wolin-Riklin.
- Getting regular exercise. Constipation is more common when you are not physically active.
Osteoarthritis Diet: Dietary Supplements
Some nutrients have also been shown to benefit people with osteoarthritis. These include:
- Vitamin D.Vitamin D can become trapped in fat cells and levels may be too low in people who are overweight. A blood test can be done to check your vitamin D levels — if they're low, talk to your doctor about taking over-the-counter vitamin D supplements.
- Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, zinc, and copper.These antioxidants are all helpful in lowering the amount of cytokines in your blood, which help reduce pain symptoms caused by inflammation. “A good multivitamin with trace minerals can be effective,” notes Wolin-Riklin.
- Fish oils.These oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body. “Increasing intake of oily fish [such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines] to three times per week, or taking fish oil supplements, can help boost this anti-inflammatory effect,” Wolin-Riklin says.
If you have osteoarthritis, managing your diet and participating in a good exercise program — in addition to drug therapy when necessary — can make a big difference in reducing osteoarthritis pain If you’re taking medications that can cause constipation, be sure to drink enough fluids and get plenty of fiber through your diet. You might also consider adding a few supplements to your diet that can help reduce inflammation. Taking control of the way you eat is a great way to play an active part in your osteoarthritis treatment.
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