Could a Healthy Diet Ward Off Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Women who eat more nutritious diets appear to have a lower risk.

White rice with salmon and avocado

Updated on February 4, 2022.

There’s no surefire way to prevent rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic inflammatory disease that can damage joints and other parts of the body. Risk factors include your sex (women are at higher risk), being middle-aged, having a family history, excess body weight, and smoking.

You can’t change some of these things. But you can likely reduce your RA risk by quitting tobacco, reducing excess weight, and being physically active. And there’s another powerful tool that may cut the risk, at least in women: a healthy diet.

That’s what researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston found when they looked at data from a 20-year study of female nurses’ health. The study examined connections between what nearly 170,000 nurses ate and their risk of developing RA. The nurses filled out dietary questionnaires at the beginning of the study and every two years thereafter and reported if they developed RA, which was then confirmed with screenings.

The end result: Women who stuck closely to Harvard’s healthy eating guidelines had a lower risk of developing RA. While the study didn’t conclusively prove that dietary choices caused lower risk—the researchers may have overlooked some other factor influencing both diet and arthritis—the link does suggest food might be influential. And while these results were found in women, eating a healthy diet can’t hurt no matter what your sex is.

Put these on your grocery list…

What did the study’s healthy diet include? Pretty much the same foods you know are good for you in so many other ways: lots of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats (a good excuse to eat avocados), nuts, legumes, and omega-3s found in fatty fish.

Choosing these foods means you’re opting for anti-inflammatory eating habits. Inflammation is the body’s response to infection or injury, but it can also be influenced by what you eat. Your body reacts to certain foods almost like it does to an infection by increasing inflammation. Too much inflammation can contribute to a variety of diseases—including, possibly, RA. Some foods may help the body keep inflammation under control.

…And cut back on these

You’ll also want to reduce your intake of red and processed meats (like steak or deli meats). Lower consumption of these was associated with lower RA risk in the Harvard study. So was lower sodium (salt) and alcohol consumption.

Avoiding sweetened drinks may also help. In a 2014 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the researchers found a significant link between sugar-sweetened soda and RA in the same large group of nurses, especially in those aged 55 or older. And a 2016 study of people in their 20s published in Nutrition and Diabetes found that participants were likelier to report having arthritis if they drank more beverages with high-fructose corn syrup, fruit drinks, and apple juice.

While you’re at it, you may also want to avoid other ultra-processed foods, like frozen meals, fast food, and packaged cookies and snacks. These manufactured foods account for the majority of calories eaten in the United States and almost 90 percent of our added sugars. Plus, they have been linked to higher risks of heart disease and stroke.

A good grocery-store rule of thumb: Stick to the outside aisles, where the fresh produce and meats are. Shop sparingly in the aisles in the center, where grocers tend to stock the packaged snacks, processed foods, and sweets.

Article sources open article sources

Sánchez-Campamà J, Nagra NS, Pineda-Moncusí M, Prats-Uribe A, Prieto-Alhambra D. The association between smoking and the development of rheumatoid arthritis: a population-based case-control study. Reumatol Clin (Engl Ed). 2021;17(10):566-569
Kronzer VL, Davis JM 3rd. Etiologies of Rheumatoid Arthritis: Update on Mucosal, Genetic, and Cellular Pathogenesis. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2021;23(4):21.
Hu Y, Sparks JA, Malspeis S, et al. Long-term dietary quality and risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women. Ann Rheum Dis. 2017;76(8):1357-1364.
Chiuve SE, Fung TT, Rimm EB, et al. Alternative dietary indices both strongly predict risk of chronic disease. J Nutr. 2012;142(6):1009-1018.
Coras R, Murillo-Saich JD, Guma M. Circulating Pro- and Anti-Inflammatory Metabolites and Its Potential Role in Rheumatoid Arthritis Pathogenesis. Cells. 2020;9(4):827. Published 2020 Mar 30.
Mayo Clinic. Rheumatoid arthritis. May 18, 2021.
Hu Y, Costenbader KH, Gao X, et al. Sugar-sweetened soda consumption and risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(3):959-967.
Katherine D. McManus. Harvard Health Publishing. What are ultra-processed foods and are they bad for our health? January 9, 2020.
Srour B, Fezeu LK, Kesse-Guyot E, et al. Ultra-processed food intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: prospective cohort study (NutriNet-Santé). BMJ. 2019;365:l1451. Published 2019 May 29.

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