Here’s yet another reason to eat a heart-healthy diet like the Pritikin Eating Plan: possible protection against a punishing, fatiguing disease called rheumatoid arthritis, often nicknamed RA.
RA affects about 1.5 million people in the U.S. It’s three times more common in women than men. For women, it often emerges between ages 30 and 60. For men, it occurs later.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is, in a word, painful. It is a disease in which the immune system seems to have gone haywire. Instead of doing its normal job of attacking invaders like bacteria and viruses, it begins attacking the body’s own joints.
The result is severe inflammation. Hands, wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles suffer. Often, so do other parts of the body, from eyes to skin.
Symptoms of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Symptoms of RA may come and go, and include:
- Joint pain, tenderness, swelling, and stiffness
- Morning stiffness
- Loss of appetite
- Low-grade fever
- Eyes that are dry, painful, and sensitive to light
- Small lumps under the skin
- Shortness of breath brought on by inflammation in the lungs
Describes blogger Katie, now in her mid-thirties, and diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 23: “Sometimes it feels like burning, other times it feels like throbbing — throbbing so bad that you can’t think about anything else. There are times I’ve almost considered wanting to cut off a foot or a hand, the pain is so excruciating.”
Other days are fine. “When I feel good, I do yoga, run, and go about life like I don’t know what rheumatoid arthritis is,” says Katie.
Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Researchers have not yet pinpointed the exact causes of rheumatoid arthritis, but that hasn’t stopped them from looking for ways to eradicate the disease, or at the very least, lessen the pain.
Best Diet For Rheumatoid Arthritis
Diet may play a critical role in both preventing and managing rheumatoid arthritis.
The latest evidence1 followed 169,989 American women, part of Harvard’s on-going Nurses Health Study, for more than 20 years. Every four years, the nurses filled out extensive questionnaires about their daily diets.
The researchers found that women ages 55 and younger with the healthiest dietary patterns had two-thirds the risk of developing RA compared to those who ate the least healthiest.
The food habits of the nurses were assessed using the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI-2010)2, a dietary quality score based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It is composed of 11 foods consistently associated with lower or higher chronic disease risk.
Foods That Cut Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis
The scientists discovered that foods linked with lower risk of RA were:
- Whole grains
- Long-chain omega-3 fat (a rich source of omega 3s is fish)
- Polyunsaturated fat
- Moderate alcohol consumption
Foods That Raised Risk of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Foods associated with increased likelihood of a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis were:
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (including fruit juice)
- Red and processed meats
- Trans fats (found in baked goods made with partially hydrogenated vegetables oils and in some commercially fried foods)
Best Diet For Rheumatoid Arthritis
In their published study, lead author Bing Lu, DrPH, MD, and colleagues affirmed that “fruits and vegetables have long been suggested as healthy foods that may be effective for rheumatoid arthritis prevention,” as have other components of a heart-healthy diet.
From the Arthritis Foundation:
- At least 3 to 4 ounces, twice a week.
- Best sources include salmon, tuna, sardines, and other cold-water fish.
Eat Your Fruit and Vegetables.
- Lots of them. In fact, fill up half your plate with fruit and veggies.
Try a Handful of Nuts or Seeds.
- But no more than a handful each day. They’re highly calorie dense.
Break Out the Beans.
- All beans – pintos, garbanzo, lentils, and more. They’re a low-cost source of fiber, protein, folic acid, and minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium.
Avoid Processed Food.
- Processed foods such as cookies, chips, and other snacks can be high in unhealthy fats, which are linked with inflammation. Opt for fresh fruit instead.
Fill Up On Fiber.
- Getting fiber from foods has been shown4 to reduce high levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP. That’s likely a big benefit for RA sufferers because lower levels of CRP mean lower levels of inflammation in the body. Studies by scientists at UCLA have found that the naturally fiber-rich Pritikin Eating Plan dramatically lowers CRP in not only men5 and women6 but also children7.
Cut the Salt.
- Salt causes fluid retention – one of many factors that can lead to high blood pressure. Also, corticosteroids, often used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, can cause the body to retain more sodium. So hold the salt when possible. The Pritikin Eating Plan recommends no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day.
Drink In Moderation.
- Compounds found in red wine may have anti-inflammatory effects. However, people with rheumatoid arthritis should limit alcoholic drinks – especially when taking medications like methotrexate. Your doctor can let you know what amount of alcohol, if any, is appropriate for you.
What makes this latest study from Harvard a standout is its sheer size. Nearly 170,000 women were tracked, and not just for a few years but for two decades.
Starting a Healthy Diet Early In Life
Also, the study showed how important it might be to start early in life with a healthy diet. As stated earlier, women ages 55 or younger who ate the best diets had two-thirds the risk of getting rheumatoid arthritis compared to those eating the worst diets, but for women older than 55, there was no significant link between healthy eating and reduced risk of the disease.
The researchers were not sure why younger women benefited so greatly while older women did not. In their analysis they proposed that “later-onset rheumatoid arthritis may be different from earlier-onset rheumatoid arthritis in terms of genetic predisposition and immune dysfunction, and hormonal changes with menopause can be a source of rheumatoid arthritis activation in older female patients.”
Healthy Living (Beyond Diet)
In the Harvard study, diet wasn’t the only healthy-lifestyle component linked with lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Others included:
- Regular exercise. Agrees the Arthritis Foundation: “For people with rheumatoid arthritis, exercise is so beneficial it’s considered a main part of treatment.”
- Being normal weight
- Not smoking
Best Diet For Rheumatoid Arthritis | Summing Up
There’s still a lot about rheumatoid arthritis that scientists don’t know.
But a growing body of research is now showing that a diet like the Pritikin Eating Plan may be the best diet for protection not only against epidemic diseases like hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes but also against rheumatoid arthritis.
“Eat healthier, and move more. The rewards just keep adding up,” smiles Danine Fruge, MD, Medical Director at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a health resort in Miami that has taught healthy Pritikin living to more than 100,000 people worldwide since 1975.
- 1 Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases. Published Online First: 30 January 2017. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2016-210431
- 2 USDA.gov
- 3 Arthritis Foundation
- 4 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2006; 83 (4): 760.
- 5 Journal of Applied Physiology, 2006; 100: 1657.
- 6 Metabolism, 2004; 53: 377.
- 7 Atherosclerosis, 2007; 191: 98.