Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an inflammatory autoimmune disease that affects your joints. If you’ve been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, you’re probably no stranger to the stiffness and swelling in your hands, wrists, and feet, since this condition most commonly affects these small joints. But bigger joints and other organs can be susceptible to pain, too — your experience of RA will be different from the next person with the same condition. (Source)
At this time, there’s no cure for RA. However, there are both pharmaceutical and holistic rheumatoid arthritis treatments that can help bring ease back to your body. One wholesome way to manage RA pain is through an anti-inflammatory diet. Committing to a way of eating that’s packed full of antioxidants, nutrient-dense foods, and vitamins can create an ideal environment for reducing inflammation in your body.
In this article we’ll be talking about some of the most valuable foods that help heal inflammation and other RA symptoms. But first, we’ll go over 13 common foods to avoid with rheumatoid arthritis — some may seem obvious to you, and others may take you by surprise.
Foods to Avoid With Rheumatoid Arthritis
Finding the ideal eating pattern that reduces your RA symptoms is a crucial part of your healing journey. There are countless foods with anti-inflammatory properties, many of which make up the best diet for autoimmune disease.
1. Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates are a short-term calorie gain with a lack of real nutritional benefit. Think of white rice and pasta, bread, and desserts that are made with all-purpose flour. These foods are pretty much just starch, whereas whole grains contain starch along with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Eating lots of refined carbs can increase inflammation and insulin resistance, so it’s best to limit your consumption of highly processed carbs that have had the nutrients stripped away. (Source, Source, Source)
2. Gluten-Containing Foods
Staying on the topic of carbohydrates: Gluten, a mix of proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye, may trigger an immune response if you have RA, especially if you’re already sensitive to gluten. For those with celiac disease, the presence of gluten in the gut stimulates an autoimmune response that can cause inflammation and damage, not just in the intestines but in other parts of the body. As with other inflammatory immune-mediated conditions, having celiac disease can increase your risk of developing other autoimmune conditions such as RA, and may worsen your symptoms if you have it. (Source, Source)
It can be tricky to know if you have a gluten sensitivity or if another food is bothering your system, so eliminating gluten from your diet, even for a short span of time (as advised in the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet) can help you determine if gluten is elevating your symptoms. Always talk with your care team before making dietary changes.
If going gluten free is right for you on your path to healing, we have some tips for how to go gluten free in a money- and time-conscious way.
Many candy labels boast they are “low fat” but leave out the declaration of “high sugar content.” Sugar is another simple carbohydrate and is a culprit of blood sugar spikes. So when you’ve grabbed a handful of your favorite sugary, gummy sweets, you’re leaving your body to deal with the inflammatory consequences.
When your diet is loaded with added sugars from candy or other desserts and indulgences, proteins that regulate inflammation, called cytokines, are released. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are activated from sugar intake, and trigger an immune response that adds to the chronic levels of inflammation found in RA. Eating candy and other foods that encourage inflammation can worsen your symptoms. (Source)
Taking care of your RA symptoms doesn’t mean never eating a mouthful of candy again — it’s more about prioritizing where your sugar intake is coming from and making wholesome, nutrient-dense choices (like fruits and berries) where you can.
4. Processed Meats
Processed meats, much like refined grains and processed sugars, have pro-inflammatory effects. A 2022 study published in Nutrition Journal showed that when intake of processed meats (described as “products that are usually made from red meat and cured, salted, or smoked to improve the taste, color, and shelf life”) was higher, the odds of having RA were also higher. Participants who consumed more fish and seafood were not as likely to have RA. This is not to say you shouldn’t eat meat if it’s your dietary preference — the study specifically refers to “processed meats,” not grass fed meat which can provide your body with healthy, healing fats. (Source)
Dairy products should come with an asterisk when describing whether or not they increase or reduce inflammation. The available scientific literature on how dairy product consumption impacts inflammation is, at best, unclear. A systematic review on this subject found dairy to have effects ranging from neutral to beneficial. But there are pro-inflammatory compounds found in dairy products, and since dairy is also one of the top 8 allergens, you may benefit from understanding how dairy impacts you. (Source, Source)
Avoiding or consuming dairy is a choice you’ll have to make for yourself, but WellTheory is always here to help with personalized, 1:1 coaching to collaborate on what to eat for optimal RA symptom improvement.
6. Whole Eggs (and Possibly Other Animal Products)
Eggs share a similar story with dairy — there is no overwhelming evidence that eggs affect systemic inflammation, but when an egg allergy is present, the egg proteins can encourage an inflammatory response. However, when eggs are tolerated, they’re a good source of protein and micronutrients such as vitamins B and D. (Source, Source)
A study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine suggests that eating a vegan diet can help improve RA symptoms, which would mean keeping eggs and other animal products off your plate. The study lacked size, diversity, and assessment of joint damage, though, and going fully vegan may or may not be right for you. A plant-rich, whole food diet is healthy for most, but finding the foods that make you feel good and the ones that don't is the key to developing your individualized anti-inflammatory diet. (Source, Source, Source)
At WellTheory, we've found that consuming a vegan diet without the help of a nutritionist can result in adverse effects due to overall poor dieting practices. This can be due to an over-reliance on soy products or not getting adequate nutrients. As a result, it's important to talk through a plant-based diet with a nutritionist to ensure that removing animal products is not doing more harm than good. You can consume a healthy vegan diet, but it's important to be knowledgeable on the best practices for your condition.
Let’s get rooted in vegetables that you may want to avoid with RA. First up are potatoes, a member of the nightshade family. Potatoes naturally contain solanine, which is a bitter alkaloid compound that protects the plant from pests. Solanine has the potential to increase intestinal permeability and increase RA risk. But again, if a nightshade allergy or intolerance is lurking behind the scenes, this may be what’s exacerbating the inflammation and adding to your existing RA symptoms. (Source, Source, Source)
Eggplants are another member of the nightshade family, so they present the same possible complications as potatoes.There may be a connection between nightshades and RA, so if you suspect that eggplants are contributing to your pain, it may be worth talking to your care provider. Luckily, there’s a whole list of anti-inflammatory foods (including non-nightshade fruits and vegetables!) that can be part of your diet without the question mark. (Source)
As we reach tomatoes, the last of the nightshades that make it into the top 13 foods to avoid with RA, remember there’s nutritional value in this fruit and other nightshades. Taking them out of your diet without evidence of a negative reaction or experience may unnecessarily limit your food choices. The Arthritis Foundation recommends eliminating nightshades for 2 weeks before reintroducing them one by one, similar to what you would do with the AIP diet. (Source)
10. Foods High in Sodium
Sodium, along with the other vitamins and minerals critical to your diet, is a necessary mineral for normal functioning. However, sodium has been found to play a role in autoimmune diseases, and high sodium intake is specifically connected with an increased risk of developing RA. (Source, Source)
Looking closely at nutrition labels to see if high sodium is lurking in your go-to snacks or prepackaged foods may expose just how much is being added in. You can lower your salt intake by eliminating precooked, prepared foods, where sodium content is completely out of your hands, and instead focus on eating whole foods or making easy snacks at home. Prepping your own food is one way to own how much salt goes in your meals, and has the added benefit of saving you money.
By activating your stress response, the caffeine in coffee raises your cortisol levels. And having cortisol coursing through your veins from drinking coffee can affect how much quality sleep you get. In turn, poor sleep can contribute to chronic inflammation. When you’re living with RA, it may be worth evaluating your dependency on coffee or other sources of caffeine if you feel it could be interfering with your sleep and causing undue inflammation.
Furthermore, a study from 2022 found that caffeinated coffee consumption was linked to a higher RA risk in a cohort of more than 60,000 women. That was specific for women who drank more than 4 cups of coffee per day, showing the potential limit of coffee’s benefits and opening the door for more studies to be done. (Source)
Like refined carbs and candy, artificially sweetened drinks offer little to no nutritional benefit and may have serious effects on health. In the same study that found drinking 4 cups of coffee or more per day led to a higher risk of RA, it was also discovered that consuming artificially sweetened soft drinks corresponded with higher rheumatoid arthritis risk. Interestingly, sugar-sweetened soft drinks weren’t associated with RA risk. The key takeaway? There are many healthy beverage choices you can make (like these 9 anti-inflammatory drinks to support your health), and others it may be best to avoid. (Source)
There are studies showing that when alcohol is consumed in moderation, there’s a reduced risk of rheumatoid arthritis. But on the flipside, excessive alcohol consumption can cause dire health consequences, one of which is impaired functioning of the immune system. Choosing whether or not to drink is a personal choice, but limiting or avoiding alcohol may be one avenue to consider as you actively engage in healing your RA symptoms. (Source, Source)
Best Foods for Rheumatoid Arthritis
Now that we’ve gone over 13 common foods to avoid with rheumatoid arthritis, let’s go over the foods that you’ll surely want to include! These suggestions are high in antioxidants, and most of them are also part of the AIP diet and the Mediterranean diet, 2 options that encourage eating nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory foods.
Beyond these healing foods, WellTheory suggests more ways (7, to be exact!) to reduce RA and work towards remission through lifestyle choices and improving your gut health.
The Bottom Line
Removing these 13 common culprits of inflammation from your diet may bring you RA symptom relief, and their nutritious, antioxidant-rich alternatives can further reduce pain and inflammation as you embody a healthier life with rheumatoid arthritis.
Here at WellTheory, we’re more the glass half-full types: We want to share with you the best foods and the most accurate information to help your autoimmune symptoms. But especially when you’re healing from RA, we have to put it on the table that some things are better left off your plate — like processed meats, alcoholic and caffeinated drinks, and refined carbs. And depending on your sensitivities or potential allergens, egg and dairy products, along with nightshades, could be making your RA symptoms worse, too. Our Nutritional Therapy Practitioners can help you figure out which foods are helping and which are harming as you collaborate in making a care plan unique to you.
Give yourself the time and space to find out what your ideal routine looks like to support your autoimmunity. Over 75 days, you’ll incorporate new routines focused on diet, sleep, movement, stress management, and lifestyle to make steady, sustainable progress towards reducing your symptoms.”