Health & Wellness: Eating to fight arthritis

(Part I of II)
What is arthritis? According to the Arthritis Foundation, simply put, it is inflammation of the joints. There are more than 100 types of arthritis and joint related diseases. Underlying causes of each form of arthritis are different. The most common types include osteoarthritis (and gout), rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, fibromyalgia and lupus.

The first step is a diagnosis of arthritis and early treatment. See your healthcare provider to find out if you have arthritis. Self-diagnosis is a mistake. Arthritis can strike anyone at any age. The disease most often begins in middle age or later. However, even children sometimes get a similar form of arthritis called juvenile arthritis.

“Arthritis” literally means joint inflammation. Inflammation causes painful redness, fever and swelling. Joints are places in the body where two bones come together, such as knees, elbows, shoulders, fingers and toes, and ankles. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports, “Joint inflammation is a symptom or sign, rather than a specific diagnosis. The term arthritis often refers to any disorder that affects joints and surrounding tissue.”

If you regularly feel pain and stiffness in your joints, you may have a form of arthritis. Most kinds of arthritis cause extreme pain and swelling in your joints. Over time, severe and permanent joint damage may result, but not always. Some forms of arthritis also can cause problems in your organs, such as your eyes or skin.

Leading forms of arthritis
Osteoarthritis (OR) is the most common arthritis in the U.S. OR is a disease that damages the slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in a joint. This damage allows bones to rub together. The rubbing causes pain, swelling and often loss of joint motion. Over time, the joint may lose its normal shape.

OR usually comes with age. It most often affects the fingers, knees and hips. OR can also follow a joint injury. For example, you may have suffered an ankle injury when you were younger and developed OR in your ankle years later. OR does not affect other organs in the body, only joints.

Gout is a form of osteoarthritis. It is the result of the buildup of crystals in joints caused by a substance called uric acid. When the body breaks down purine, a substance found in many foods, uric acid, forms. People who have gout have trouble eliminating uric acid or they produce too much uric acid. This buildup causes inflammation and severe pain in the joints.

According to NIH, gout often starts in the big toe (but not always) and can cause lumps under the skin and sometimes kidney stones. Of all the forms of arthritis, gout has the most obvious dietary link. Avoiding foods that contain high levels of purines is a critical part of managing gout. These foods include red meats (mainly beef, pork and lamb), most seafood (shellfish) and meat-based broths and gravies. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks and foods sweetened with fructose (fruit sugar) also increase uric acid levels. Alcohol intake, especially beer, increases risk of attacks too.

Eating to reduce inflammation
Anti-inflammatory eating can reduce inflammation throughout your body and your joints. However, changing the way you eat is no easy task. Start by adopting one new action each month. Foods that cause inflammation include (limit or try to avoid these foods as much as possible):

  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, white pasta, and pastries.
  • French fries and other deep-fried foods (too much fat)
  • Soda/pop, energy drinks, and other sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Red meat (burgers, steaks) and processed meat like hot dogs, sausages, and cold cuts
  • Full fat dairy products, shortening, lard, bacon drippings and other hard/saturated fats
  • Alcohol in excess wreaks havoc on your liver. Excessive use weakens liver function, and causes inflammation and gout flare-ups.

Bright and deeply colored fruits and vegetables are your clue to anti-inflammatory eating. Adopting the Mediterranean diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils, is an excellent plan. Your daily meal plan should include these foods:

  • Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, red and deep orange fruits and vegetables
  • Healthy liquid oils like olive oil, nut oils, and seed oils
  • Nuts like almonds, walnuts
  • Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries and oranges
  • Cold-water fish, which are high in Omega-3, are known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Unfortunately, fish oil supplements do not produce the same positive results.
  • Dark green leafy vegetables contain antioxidants that fight inflammation. Kale, the cabbage family (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, etc.), collards, and spinach to name a few

Caution: If you are taking a blood thinner like Coumadin/warfarin, follow your health care professional’s advice on how many servings of dark leafy vegetables and omega-3 foods you should eat each day.

Look for Part II on arthritis next month, as we celebrate National Arthritis Awareness Month.

Prepared by Drusilla Banks, Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness; University of Illinois Extension in Bourbonnais, IL.

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