How to Avoid the Worst Foods for Joint Pain

These everyday foods could be a hidden source of joint pain.

Foods and beverages with high amounts of added sugar can promote inflammation and make psoriatic arthritis symptoms worse.

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Some foods help to fight disease, nourishing and healing you from the inside out. Others can do just the opposite, wreaking havoc on your system and making you sick in the long run. For example, the foods on this list can increase system-wide inflammation and may worsen joint inflammation, which could lead to joint pain. Avoiding these foods can improve your overall health and may offer some benefit when it comes to joint pain as well.

Inflammation and your joints
There are different types of arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and others. Each has its own list of symptoms, but most involve chronic inflammation, especially inflammation of the joints.

What’s inflammation? It’s your immune system’s natural response to injuries and infections. If your body is “under attack,” it will activate healing and bacteria-fighting cells in response. The swelling, redness and pain that develop around a scrape or cut are examples of healthy inflammation at work. They’re signs that immune cells and blood cells are gathering around the wound to rebuild your tissue and fight infections.

Sometimes the body triggers the inflammation response in normal, healthy tissues due to conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. General inflammation may also develop throughout your body because of lifestyle factors like sitting all day or eating junk food. General inflammation can worsen chronic joint pain and put you at risk for other conditions like heart disease and diabetes as well.

Avoid these inflammatory foods
Removing the following foods from your meal plan can improve your overall health and may help to ease your joint pain.

Surprisingly sugary foods like flavored coffee beverages. Some sugar is necessary in every diet. But “sugar bombs,” or high-sugar foods that cause an immediate spike, followed by a quick drop in blood sugar, can create system-wide inflammation. Are these sugar bombs hiding in your diet?

  • Sweetened or flavored coffee drinks. Ask your barista to skip the flavored syrup, which may pack up to 25 teaspoons of sugar per beverage—that’s three times the daily recommended amount of sugar for adults. Instead, sprinkle in a small amount of a natural sweetener like stevia.
  • Fruit juices from concentrate or ones with added sugar. Add a splash of juice to sparkling water for a refreshing swap.
  • Condiments. Ketchup, barbeque sauce and honey mustard are high in sugar. For example, 2 tablespoons of barbeque sauce may contain up to 16 grams.
  • Some yogurts. Unprocessed Greek yogurt can be a calcium and protein-rich snack. But certain yogurts, especially those with fruit-on-the-bottom, can be hidden sources of sugar, packing up to 30 grams per serving.

Always read the ingredients and nutrition facts label before buying condiments, yogurt and other packaged foods. Look out for “sugar code words” like corn syrup, dextrose, fructose and molasses.

Foods high in saturated fat like pizza. A number of studies have found that a diet high in saturated fat increases inflammation in both healthy tissues and adipose, or fatty tissues. That can cause tissue damage, increase your risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and may worsen joint pain.

Regular cheese and pizza are the top sources of saturated fat in the American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute. These foods contain large amounts as well:

  • Lard, cream and butter
  • Red meats like beef, pork, lamb
  • Chicken with the skin on

Trans fats like those in red meat. Along with saturated fat, red meat is a natural source of trans fat. Trans fat might also appear as “partially hydrogenated oil” on packaged food labels, even when there’s “0 grams trans fat” listed under nutrition facts.

Trans fats:

  • Decrease HDL, or “good” cholesterol and increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol
  • Raise your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and stroke
  • Promote system-wide inflammation, which may aggravate arthritis symptoms

As of 2013, trans fats are no longer “Generally Recognized as Safe” by the FDA and are being phased out of food manufacturing.

Cooking oils high in omega-6 fatty acids like sunflower oil. You might have heard about the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s may help to prevent heart disease, offer some protection against dementia and reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few.

On the other hand, high levels of omega-6 fatty acids may cause your body to release inflammation-causing chemicals, although omega-6s are necessary in moderation for brain and reproductive health. Most Americans eat too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s, and experts think that may increase inflammation.

Omega-6s are found in many packaged foods, along with certain oils like vegetable, corn and sunflower oil. Cook with heart-healthy olive oil instead for a much healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. Other foods that up your intake of inflammation-fighting omega-3’s include salmon, flax seeds and walnuts.

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