Before you take another bite of that convenient fast food meal, consider how it affects your osteoarthritis (OA). Research shows that diets high in saturated fat – found in red meat, butter, cheese, lard and processed foods – can weaken knee cartilage, making it more prone to damage.
A 2017 study published in Arthritis Care & Research, researchers followed more than 2,000 patients with OA for up to four years, checking disease progression and diet at yearly intervals. Participants who ate the most fat, especially the saturated kind, showed increasing joint damage, whereas those who ate healthy fats like olive oil and avocados had little disease progression. Another recent animal study showed that it even may harm the underlying bone, according to Yin Xiao, PhD, a professor at Queensland University of Technology in Australia and lead author of a 2017 study that looked at the effect of diet on OA.
“Our findings suggest that it’s not wear and tear but diet that has a lot to do with the onset of osteoarthritis,” he says.
Blame It On Inflammation
Fat’s not the only culprit, though. Sugar, refined carbs, red meat, processed food and corn and soybean oils can spark inflammation, too. Barry Sears, PhD, a long-time researcher in inflammatory nutrition, says eating them is “like throwing a match into a vat of gasoline.”
These foods also tend to pack on pounds, putting extra pressure on stressed joints. To make matters worse, body fat, especially the kind that collects around your belly, makes its own inflammatory proteins, perpetuating the cycle of inflammation even after you’ve sworn off junk food forever.
The solution is to change the way you eat. Switching to an anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean-style diet can help you lose weight and significantly improve your joint, heart and brain health without sacrificing good taste.
An anti-inflammatory diet is heavy on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish and healthy fats like olive oil, avocados and nuts. Poultry’s allowed now and then and you can have one glass of red wine or beer a day. Off the menu, as you might expect, are sugar, red meat, and processed foods.
What sets this way of eating apart is that it actively fights inflammation, experts say.
“There are a variety of foods in the Mediterranean diet that are high in fiber, beta carotene, magnesium and omega 3s, all of which have been found to reduce inflammatory markers in human studies,” explains Michelle Babb, MS, RD, a Seattle-based nutrition educator.
“I’ve had [arthritis] patients who have been able to discontinue the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as a result of transitioning to a Mediterranean diet. Some even report a noticeable difference in pain in the first week.”
Even so, changing the way you eat can be daunting.
“Don’t expect your diet to change overnight,” advises Sotiria Everett, EdD, RD, an assistant professor at Stonybrook University Medical Center in New York. “Start by looking at what you’re eating now (a food diary is a great way to do this) and identifying areas where you can improve.”
But Babb doesn’t see a problem. Her patients “really enjoy this food plan and don’t feel it’s a hardship to follow it,” she says.
She admits it takes more work and advance planning than the drive-through and recommends prepping some food for the week in advance.
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