How can my diet choices influence rheumatoid arthritis (RA)?

There has been a lot written about so-called arthritis diets, but no one food causes arthritis, and no one food can cure it. However, research suggests that eating a typical Mediterranean-style diet—plenty of fruit, vegetables and healthy unsaturated fats (olive oil, nuts and fish)—may help reduce inflammation and improve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin E, omega-3 and omega-6 supplements may also help reduce inflammation and pain.

Rheumatoid arthritis and some of the medications used to treat it can lead to low levels of protein, folic acid, and calcium—nutrients your body needs to stay healthy and strong. People with RA have an increased risk of developing osteoporosis as well, so consider taking calcium and vitamin D supplements to help maintain bone strength or a daily multivitamin to cover all your bases.

Talk to your doctor before taking supplements or making major changes in your diet.


People are all different. We all have food sensitivities or allergies to different foods. Therefore, it is important to keep a good diet diary and then eliminate the foods that you find make your arthritis worse. You can gradually reintroduce these foods one at a time and keep them in your diet if you continue to not be affected by them.

Dr. Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation Specialist

One research study in Britain found that increased red meat consumption was associated with as much as a two-fold increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. This study did not provide a direct relationship between red meat and osteoarthritis, and other factors such as general protein consumption, may have been involved. If there is a causal relationship between red meat and rheumatoid arthritis, it is probably associated with the collagen in red meat, or perhaps some other substance that triggers an immune response.

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

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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,...

Joel Kremer, MD, published a study many years ago which examined the effects of giving patients with RA high doses of fish oil which contains eicospentanoic acid (EPA). While there were improvements in a number of measured parameters, neither the patients nor the physicians caring for them could accurately identify when they were taking placebo and when fish oil.

Lona Sandon
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

If you have rheumatoid arthritis like I do, you will benefit from including a variety of foods in your daily eating pattern. In reviewing the research literature, a Mediterranean diet pattern is likely to have the best health promoting effects for people with RA. A Mediterranean diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fish. Phytonutrients found in fruits, vegetables and whole grains may help lower body wide inflammation along with the healthy fats found in nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish.

People with RA are at greater risk for heart disease due to inflammation and side effects of the medications used to treat RA. A Mediterranean diet has been shown to help lower your risk of heart disease.

Research studies do not support eliminating certain foods from the diet when you have RA. If you feel like certain foods may aggravate your symptoms, I recommend keeping a food and symptom journal for 6 to 8 weeks to help determine if those foods are truly problematic. People with RA can have food sensitivities or allergies too. If you suspect you have food allergies, see an Allergist or Immunologist for proper testing. A Registered Dietitian can help you design a nutrition plan that assures you are eating for optimal health while avoiding problem foods.

There is no scientific evidence that any specific food or nutrient helps or harms most people with rheumatoid arthritis. However, an overall nutritious diet with enough—but not an excess of—calories, protein and calcium is important. Some studies have shown that the omega-3 fatty acids in certain fish or plant seed oils also may reduce rheumatoid arthritis inflammation. However, many people are not able to tolerate the large amounts of oil necessary for any benefit, and both fish oils and plant oils have side effects, including risk of bleeding and interactions with certain medications, including blood pressure medications and psychiatric drugs. More research is necessary to find the optimal dosage of fish and plant seed oils for the management of RA.

Some people may need to be careful about drinking alcoholic beverages because of the medications they take for rheumatoid arthritis. Those taking methotrexate may need to avoid alcohol altogether. You should ask your health care professional or a registered dietitian for guidance on the issue of diet.

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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.