How Sugar Affects Rheumatoid Arthritis

Medically reviewed in April 2022

It’s not news that sugary sweet soda is associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease, but a 2014 study suggests that it also ups rheumatoid arthritis risk in women. And, if you already have rheumatoid arthritis, sugar isn’t so sweet on your joints.

While scientists do not know for sure how sugar harms your joints, they think it could come down to inflammation. That slow-burning fire is how rheumatoid arthritis attacks your joints and brings on the pain, swelling and stiffness you feel. Excess sugars (like fructose and sucrose, the sugars that make junk food taste so good) are thought to add more fuel to the flame. And, of course, too much soda can pile on the pounds, which further adds to RA risk.

It gets worse: Sugar also ups your risk of other dangerous diseases that often tag along with RA, such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. According to some studies, RA sufferers have up to twice the risk of cardiovascular disease and a 50% increased risk of diabetes. So cutting back on sugar is especially smart for people with RA.

The good news is that you don’t have to completely neglect your sweet tooth when you cut back on sugar. Try these five alternatives to satisfy your sweet cravings and keep RA inflammation and other diseases at bay.

  • Stop drinking sugar. You already know soda is bad for your joints, but you may be surprised to learn that sports, energy drinks and even fruit juices are loaded with the sweet stuff. Drink skim milk, black tea or water instead.
  • Sweeten your a.m. routine with honey. While honey still contains sucrose and fructose, some experts suggest it’s sweeter than table sugar, so you’re satisfied with less. Just a drizzle in your tea or oatmeal should do the sweet trick.
  • Ditch the syrup. Just one tablespoon of sticky-sweet maple syrup is 50 calories, which can add up when your drowsy, hungry self is sitting in front of a stack of pancakes. Luckily, fresh fruit or pure fruit purees could be just as sweet atop your morning flapjacks.
  • Stir in cinnamon. Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant that helps your body process blood glucose. Use a cinnamon stick to stir your tea, hot chocolate or coffee in place of flavored creamers. You can also sprinkle it into your muffin batter for a tasty twist.
  • Make your own pasta sauce. Ready-made pasta sauce is packed with extra sugar. Make your own sauce with crushed, canned tomatoes to slash the sweet stuff from your dinner.

Need more inspiration? Look no further than Sharecare for some healthier versions of family-favorite desserts like chocolate-cherry pudding, classic cheesecake, and hot pineapple and bananas with ice cream.

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