If you have a few – or a lot – of pounds to lose, you know that carrying excess weight around can stress your painful or fragile joints. But research shows that the mechanical effects of weight are just part of the problem.
Fat itself releases chemicals including tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) and interleukin-1 (IL-1) that promote inflammation. These chemicals may not only increase the risk of developing some forms of arthritis, but they may also increase arthritis severity or make it harder to control.
In fact a study presented at the 2015 annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology found that for people with early rheumatoid arthritis (RA), being overweight or obese can reduce the chance of achieving sustained remission.
Researchers at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York studied 1,066 patients in the Canadian Early Arthritis Cohort, a multicenter research program that aims to improve the quality of life for people with inflammatory arthritis. The participants were divided into three groups based on their body mass index (BMI): normal, 18.5–24.9; overweight 25.0–29.9, and obese >30. The researchers then examined the relationship between BMI and the participants’ ability to achieve remission.
They found that while 48% of people with BMIs in the normal range achieved sustained remission within three years, only 38% of those in the overweight group and 28% in the obese group did. The relationship between BMI and remission rates remained true even when the researchers adjusted for factors such as age, race, smoking, steroid use and other medications.
While there are many arthritis risk factors you can’t change – your age, sex and family history, for example – weight is one factor you can change. And while medications are always needed to control RA, losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight may make those medications work better.
If you’re ready to take better control of your arthritis by controlling your weight, the following five tips can help.
Get walking. Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for people with arthritis. It is low impact, it can be done almost everywhere and it doesn’t require special equipment. Even better, walking burns approximately 100 calories per mile. Assuming you are maintaining a steady weight now, if you were to walk a mile a day for the next year, you would be 10 pounds lighter without making a single change to your diet.
Go low fat. You can enjoy almost all of the foods you love and still lose weight if you substitute lower-fat versions, which are usually lower in calories. For example, if you drink one eight-ounce glass of whole milk each day, you could save 60 calories a day (or 21,900 calories over the course of a year, which translates to a little over six pounds of weight loss) just by switching to skim milk.
Eat more fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are generally lower in calories than other foods and their fiber will fill you up so you won’t eat as many calorie-dense foods. Plus they are full of nutrients that promote health. The USDA recommends at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Limit portion sizes. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity found that adults consistently consume more than 90% of what they serve themselves, a practice that can lead to overeating. If you want to eat less, serve yourself less. If you are still hungry after eating your regular meal, limit second helpings to low-calorie salads, fruits and vegetables.
Eat early. Calories consumed at night have less time to be burned off before bedtime. Set a time – say 7:00 – and resolve to not eat after that. As a reminder, brush your teeth around your cut-off time. The simple act of brushing may reduce cravings. Brushing also reminds you that you are through eating until morning. Your teeth are clean for the night.