Is being overweight or obese related to osteoarthritis?

Many people assume that diet has a lot to do with the development of arthritis. Based on our current understanding, this notion is largely a myth.

However, there are some links between diet and arthritis. For example, getting enough milk and vitamin C is associated with a somewhat lower risk of gout. Gout is a disorder characterized by too much uric acid in the blood and tissues. Crystals of uric acid are deposited in the joints, where they cause a type of arthritis called gouty arthritis.

The risk of developing gout appears to be higher among people with a diet that is high in:

  • meat
  • seafood
  • alcohol
  • high-fructose corn syrup (as in sweetened soft drinks)
  • purines (a form of protein found in sardines, liver and other organ meats)

However, the vast majority of people who choose these foods and drinks never develop gout. And for those who already have gout, drug treatments are usually more effective and reliable than changing what they eat and drink.

Another condition in which diet may affect arthritis risk is celiac disease. This is an immune reaction to gluten in the diet. Gluten is a component of wheat and other grains. By eliminating gluten from the diet (by avoiding many bread products, cereals and a host of other common foods), the condition can be controlled and the arthritis improved.

There is no clear connection between diet and these common forms of arthritis:

  • osteoarthritis
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • lupus

Removing certain types of foods or adding others to treat arthritis have met with inconclusive or disappointing results.

Perhaps the most important connection between diet and arthritis is the well-known link between obesity and the most common type of arthritis, osteoarthritis. The best way to reduce your risk of developing osteoarthritis is to maintain a healthy weight and avoid a diet that contributes to obesity. Recent studies suggest that obese people with osteoarthritis have less pain if they lose weight. (However, genetics have an impact on osteoarthritis risk. Changes in diet alone do not reliably reduce arthritis symptoms.)

We may someday figure out that diet matters much more than we realize now. But, at the current time, diet plays little or no role in the development of most joint diseases.

Excess body weight that is not due to muscle is a modifiable risk factor that appears to increase the risk of osteoarthritis through mechanical stress and metabolic changes associated with excess fat. The exact nature of the metabolic changes is still being investigated.

Overweight men and women increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis of the knee—often of both knees. Being overweight also increases the risk of osteoarthritis of the knee increasing in severity once it has developed. Excess weight may increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the hand joints.


The increased weight in the morbidly obese leads to early degenerative arthritic changes of the weight-bearing joints, including the knees, hips and spine. The average person’s knees feel 3-6 times their own body weight with each step, and an increased weight can produce more trauma to the cartilage, leading to increased risk of OA.

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Some research suggests that obesity is the strongest predictor of developing osteoarthritis, specifically severe knee pain, especially in older people. Losing weight is one of the best things you can do to decrease your risk for osteoarthritis.

Dr. Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

People who are obese have a significantly increased risk of developing arthritis, because obesity is an important source of chronic microtrauma to the cartilage. Joints are designed for carrying, properly distributing and cushioning body weight. They are also capable of taking on temporary excess loads. For example, stress on the joints is greatly increased when we carry groceries, lift weights, bend over or run up stairs. However, joints do have limits.

Each step you take while walking involves temporarily transferring your weight primarily onto one joint. When you factor in momentum, biomechanics and gravity, your knees and hips experience up to three times as much pressure as your body weight with each step. If you weigh 140 pounds, your knee joints may experience as much as 320 pounds of weight with each step. When you walk down a flight of stairs, your hip and knee joints may experience as much as a six-fold increase in weight, so that same 140-pound person experiences as much as 640 pounds across the knees and hips.

In other words, every pound you gain punishes your joints up to six-fold. Research clearly bears this out; overweight men are five times more likely to develop arthritis, and overweight women are four times more likely to develop it than are their non-overweight counterparts. For every 10 pounds of excess weight gain, the risk of developing arthritis increases by 40 percent. Every time you take a step, the extra weight places increased pressure on your weight-bearing joints, because the load is too great for your muscles, ligaments and tendons. The joints shift under the weight and, ultimately, they are overwhelmed, resulting in repetitive microtears in the cartilage. Additional stresses are taken up by static portions of your bone, creating friction. Your bone responds by trying to build new bone, but the new bone is weaker than the original bone, and the process of arthritis is well on its way.

The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

More About this Book

The Arthritis Handbook: Improve Your Health and Manage the Pain of Osteoarthritis (A DiaMedica Guide to Optimum Wellness)

According to conventional wisdom, arthritis pain is an inevitable part of aging. Not so, says Dr. Grant Cooper in this practical, accessible guide. For those who do develop osteoarthritic conditions,...

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.