Soothe your sore joints with every meal

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Good nutrition is a necessity if you're one of the 1.3 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic joint disease. There's no cure for RA, but eating the right foods for rheumatoid arthritis makes living with the disease more manageable.

In RA, the immune system attacks healthy joints and tissues. This causes inflammation, bringing joint pain, swelling and symptoms such as low-grade fever and extreme fatigue. "Chronic and acute inflammation is at work in people with RA," says Barbara Rowe, M.P.H., R.D., a dietitian at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore and the author of Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Health.

To reduce inflammation, she recommends at least two to three servings (3 to 4 ounces each) a week of fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and bluefish, all high in omega-3 fatty acids. "Omega 3s are good for everyone," she says. "But because they help fight inflammation, they are especially beneficial for people with RA.” Not a fish fan? Canola oil, walnuts and flaxseeds contain small amounts of omega 3s. Or try omega-3-enriched eggs.

Limit saturated fats, found in full-fat dairy, fatty meats and tropical oils, and omega-6 fats, present in fried foods and processed meats. "Omega-6 fats are important for healthy skin, nails and brain function, but most Americans consume too much," says Rowe.

Finally, make sure your diet is balanced. RA and the side effects of some therapies can reduce your desire to eat, making malnutrition a potential problem. One common drug, methotrexate, hinders the absorption of the B vitamin folic acid. If you use methotrexate, Rowe says, take a daily supplement with 400 mcg of folic acid. And consider adopting a Mediterranean-style diet, which emphasizes healthy fats, fish, whole grains and produce; some UK studies suggest it may help with RA pain.

Build Up Your Bones

People with RA are at higher risk for osteoporosis—bone loss that can lead to fractures—in part because some RA medications, corticosteroids, can weaken bones. Calcium and vitamin D can help you maintain bone strength. "Calcium supplements and calcium-fortified foods are important, but not as effective at raising calcium levels as foods that contain calcium naturally," says Barbara Rowe, M.P.H., R.D. So include plenty of calcium-rich milk, cheese and yogurt in your diet. For vitamin D, you may need a supplement, especially if you take steroids, which can impair your ability to use the vitamin. According to findings presented recently at the annual meeting of the European League Against Rheumatism (EULAR), you'll probably need more than the often recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 200 to 600 IU to boost vitamin D blood levels back into healthy territory. Ask your doctor how much to take.

Get Ample Antioxidants

Antioxidants are substances that protect the body's cells from damage that occurs as we go through life. Some experts have suggested the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium may help reduce the swelling and pain of RA, but research has yet to confirm this. So, should RA sufferers take an antioxidant supplement? No, says Rowe: "Antioxidants are best obtained with a well-rounded, healthy diet." A better buffer: plenty of whole grains, produce, low-fat protein, omega 3s and calcium-rich foods—plus a standard multivitamin each day. "You'll get just about everything you need," she says.

From our sister publication Remedy's Healthy Living, Fall 2010

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 05 Apr 2011

Last Modified: 24 Feb 2015