If you follow my articles, you’ll notice a few highlighting the relationship between plant-based foods and their effects on autoimmune diseases. This is yet another in that series targeting one of the most common autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis (RA), in which the immune system targets and attacks your body’s joints. Similar to many other autoimmune diseases, many of the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are caused by chronic and controlled inflammation, which may also lead to permanent damage.
Luckily, a diet rich in plant-based foods has shown promising effects on reducing inflammation and managing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Let’s take a deep dive and learn more about this connection!
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. The body’s immune system “protects you from disease and infection,” yet, for those with an autoimmune disease, the “immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake.” There are over 80 autoimmune disorders, differentiated by the organ, tissue, or area of the body that the immune system attacks.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the joints of the body causing painful inflammation and the thickening of the tissue in the joints. Specifically, this autoimmune disease affects the synovium — a natural compound that “makes a fluid that lubricates joints and helps them move smoothly.” Without proper attention, rheumatoid arthritis can cause permanent damage, in particular, damage to the cartilage, bones, and joints of the body.
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common autoimmune diseases, with about 1.5 million people suffering in the U.S. alone. This disease also favors women, with “nearly three times as many women” than men diagnosed.
Reducing Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms with Plant-Based Foods
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a progressive disorder beginning with less severe symptoms — such as joint pain and tenderness, stiffness in the morning, and swelling — and growing progressively more disabling — including fatigue, loss of appetite, and fever. RA can also affect many non-joint related organs and systems including eyes and mouth — impaired vision and sensitivity to light, dryness and gum infection — skin — the growth of “small lumps under the skin and over bony areas” — lungs — shortness of breath caused by inflammation and scarring — and blood vessels — anemia and inflammation that leads to “damage in the nerves, skin and other organs.”
While the list of symptoms is overwhelming, the good news is that a plant-based diet has been shown to improve, manage, and even reduce RA symptoms.
Inflammation-Fighting Plant-Based Foods
How does a plant-based diet accomplish this?
It’s all about the natural, rich, and powerful anti-inflammatory agents within almost all plant-based foods. In particular, it’s recommended to increase “your intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains … Studies show that adding fiber to the diet results in lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood; CRP is an indicator of inflammation.”
One of the most promising plant-based foods to fight inflammation is extra-virgin olive oil. In fact, three and a half tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil (about 400 calories worth) is “equal to the anti-inflammatory properties of one 200-mg ibuprofen tablet.” Extra-virgin olive oil has a specific compound called “oleocanthal [which] blocks the enzymes that cause inflammation.” This makes extra-virgin olive oil one of the best inflammation-fighting agents!
Inflammation Aggravating Foods
While most plant-based foods are known to fight inflammation, there are a handful of foods that can actually exacerbate inflammation.
Meat-based foods — such as hamburgers and chicken — that have been “grilled or fried at high temperatures can raise the amount of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in the blood.” Yet, to be clear, there is “no direct link between AGEs and arthritis,” but “high levels of AGEs have been detected in people with inflammation.”
If you suffer from RA, you may also want to decrease your intake of omega-6 fatty acids. These are most prominently found in “corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils, and many snack and fried foods.” High consumption of these forms of omega-6 fatty acids increases your risk for both obesity and joint inflammation.
We talk up plant-based foods for their rich-nutrient, zero-cholesterol content. Yet, plants are also rich in various antioxidant, antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory compounds. This makes them an ideal choice for those suffering from arthritis, especially rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, a survey “found that 24% of those with rheumatoid arthritis reported that their diet had an impact on the severity of their symptoms.” While there are plenty of plant-based foods that are also rheumatoid arthritis friendly, here are a few that are especially powerful!
Garlic is not only a flavorful addition to your kitchen, but it is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent. When it comes to arthritis, this is a great ingredient! Studies have shown that “a specific component in garlic could decrease some of the inflammatory markers associated with arthritis.” Plus, garlic is an incredibly diverse ingredient and easy to use. Spice up your favorite soup — such as this Garlic Miso and Onion Soup — create a garlic-infused dip for variety — such as this Garlic Aioli — or even start your day with a simple, garlic-infused dish — such as this Tofu Scramble.
This deep green, hearty veggie also happens to be one of the leading anti-inflammation foods available. Broccoli is part of the cruciferous vegetable family, which, in one particular study, showed an association “with decreased levels of inflammatory markers.” Broccoli is especially useful for mitigating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms due to a powerful component called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane has been shown to block “the formation of a type of cell involved in rheumatoid arthritis development.”
While broccoli is delicious, it can be difficult for some sensitive digestive systems to process. Therefore, try softening broccoli is soups and stews such as this German Vegetable and Mushroom Stew, this Zucchini and Broccoli Stew, this Red Thai Curry Noodle Soup, or this Creamy Cheesy Broccoli Soup.
Earlier, I mentioned that omega-3 fatty acids happen to be one of the inflammation-fighting, symptom-reducing plant-based food components. This is where walnuts truly shine! Walnuts contain some of the highest amounts of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. In fact, one cup of raw walnuts has a whopping 10,623 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acid! Sprinkle halved and raw walnuts on your favorite salad or add them last minute to a grain-based dish to give it a rich crunch. Walnuts are also a great ingredient to bake with such as this Walnut Bread, these Fudge Walnut Brownies, these Maple Walnut Scones, or these Cranberry Walnut Oatmeal Cookies.
Popeye got his strong muscles from his doses of spinach, because he was also infusing his body with anti-inflammation agents. Spinach “contains plenty of antioxidants as well as plant compounds that can relieve inflammation and help fight disease.” In particular, this popular and user-friendly leafy green contains an antioxidant called kaempferol, which “has been shown to decrease the effects of the inflammatory agents associated with rheumatoid arthritis.” While spinach is a staple salad ingredient, its subtle and neutral-flavored petals blend well into meatier recipes such as this Baked Spinach Falafel with Tzatziki and Lemon Tahini Sauce, this Portabella Mushroom Gyro, these Baked Eggplant Stacks with Cashew Ricotta, or even in this creative Beet and Spinach Swirl Bread.
Cherry juice is a rising star in the plant-based world, mostly due to its “wide array of nutrients and health benefits.” Tart cherry juice (meaning it has zero added sugars) has also been attributed to reduced arthritis symptoms. In a 58-participant study, those that received tart cherry juice had “significantly decreased symptoms of osteoarthritis and reduced inflammation.” Incorporating cherry juice into your diet is simple! You can purchase raw tart cherry juice concentrate, such as this Dynamic Health Organic Tart Cherry Concentrate, or try substituting tart cherry juice in cherry-based recipes such as this Cherry Soda, this Watermelon Cherry Cooler, or this Sweet Cherry Almond Smoothie.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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