According to research presented this week at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in San Francisco, what you’re eating is linked to your chances of being diagnosed with painful rheumatoid arthritis (RA). (John Holcroft/Getty Images)
RA, a more severe form of arthritis which causes pain, stiffness and swelling in multiple joints (the hands and feet are usually involved), is the most common chronic autoimmune disease that affects the joints. While people of all ages suffer from this condition, it’s more prevalent among women.
In one of the studies, investigators recorded the health of 93,859 females who filled out a dietary survey every four years until 2011. All of the women were nurses and they did not have RA.
The researchers discovered that these females followed either the Western diet (a plan made up mostly of red meat, processed meat, refined grains, fried food, high-fat dairy and sweets) or the Prudent diet (which consists of fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, poultry and fish).
Related: Is It Possible to Prevent Arthritis?
During the study period, the authors found that 347 of the women developed RA at the average of age of 39. While other factors were taken into consideration—including age, smoking status, body mass index, total calories consumed each day, alcohol consumption, level of physical activity, and socioeconomic factors—the nurses on the Prudent plan were less likely to have this condition compared to those who ate the Western way. However, BMI (body mass index) weakened these findings.
“This indicates that the effects of the two dietary patterns on RA risk may be partially through BMI, and the clear mechanism is still unknown,” said Bing Lu, MD, DrPH; assistant professor of medicine; Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, in a press release. “Therefore, adherence to a healthy diet may be a way to prevent this debilitating disease, especially for high risk population.”
“Diet can play a major role in inflammatory arthritis,” Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a board certified internist, a nationally known expert in the field of pain and author of The Fatigue and Fibromyalgia Solution, tells Yahoo Health. He explains that inflammation is the root cause of RA (“Anything that ends in the letters ‘itis” means that the problem is inflammatory”) and believes it is tied to what we consume.
“Our body’s armies of inflammation are often on high-alert when they don’t have to be,” he says. “Over the last few hundred years, we have markedly decreased anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids—which can come from fish oils and some vegetable oils—and increased pro-inflammatory omega 6 fats in our diet, found in land animal fat. This often results in our bodies being on ‘inflammatory overdrive’ unnecessarily. And this excess inflammation has been associated not just with an increased tendency to pain, but at times with increases in heart attacks and other diseases, as well.”
And Dr. Teitelbaum adds that the “white foods” a.k.a. sugar, white potatoes and white flour, can also be to blame. “These items stimulate insulin resistance and release, further increasing the production of pro-inflammatory hormones from these omega 6 fats.”
The good news: Switching up your diet today may keep RA—and similar conditions—at bay. “If you have excess inflammation, your body can often repair the damage over time,” says Dr. Teitelbaum.