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Arthritis symptoms can fluctuate significantly depending on a wide range of factors, including diet. Though there is no cure for arthritis, there are ways to manage its effects. Doctors often recommend that people with arthritis follow a diet that can help manage their symptoms. These diets usually include foods with anti-inflammatory properties. However, many individuals don’t realize there are foods they should actively avoid, as well. These foods can trigger joint inflammation directly or affect the disease in other ways.

Milk and dairy

A 2017 study suggests that milk has anti-inflammatory properties, which led to many dietitians recommending it to their arthritis patients. However, dairy products contain a special type of protein that may irritate the tissues around the joints. Because of this, some people with arthritis experience worsening of symptoms after increasing their dairy intake. While the evidence is conflicting, experts recommend that people with arthritis evaluate their symptoms; if dairy seems to exacerbate the condition, eliminate it from the diet.

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Fried foods

In 2009, researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine published a study on the effects of diet on disease prevention. They found that eliminating fried and processed foods helps reduce inflammation and restore the body’s natural defenses. Additionally, avoiding these foods can lead to weight loss. Generally, less weight means less stress on the joints, which can also alleviate arthritis pain.

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Alcohol

Almost everyone is aware of the various negative effects of alcohol, though some people may know that it can also affect the joints. Individuals who consume alcohol regularly are more likely to develop gout and osteoarthritis. While experts find that small amounts of alcohol may reduce inflammation in otherwise healthy diets, excess consumption can lead to various problems. Additionally, it may worsen the pain for those who already have gout, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or other forms of arthritis.

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Salt

Experts in medical fields almost universally agree that too much salt is dangerous. High salt intake increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease and may also worsen arthritis pain. Salt essentially causes cells to take on more water, which then increases pressure on blood cells. In some cases, this leads to inflammation. Researchers from leading institutions such as Harvard and Yale suggest that salt is contributing to increasing cases of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.

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Sugar

Many studies show sugar-rich diets lead to health problems. Among these issues is chronic low-grade inflammation, which can worsen joint pain and increase the frequency of arthritis flare-ups. A small study of 29 people found that a can of soda a day led to an increase in inflammatory markers, which triggers more inflammation. Diets with large amounts of sugar often contribute to weight gain, which can also aggravate the effects of arthritis.

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Trans and saturated fats

Nearly every diet recommends reducing saturated fats. Among saturated fats, trans fats in particular are considered unhealthy. While everyone needs a certain amount of fat, excess saturated fat can lead to a range of health problems. People with arthritis may need to be more careful about which unhealthy fats they eat. Research suggests that saturated fats can influence fatty tissue by increasing the expression of inflammatory genes and stimulating inflammatory molecules. Trans fats are best known to trigger inflammation, which may aggravate arthritic pain.

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Vegetable oils

As with milk, there is some conflicting research concerning vegetable seed oils, specifically omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid arachidonic acids (ARA), which exist in high levels in most vegetable oils. ARA is a precursor to many pro-inflammatory mediators; many experts believe consuming ARA leads to increased inflammation. However, some human studies suggest that omega-6 fatty acid diets may inhibit inflammation. Experts advise individuals with arthritis to avoid vegetable seed oils if their symptoms worsen. Olive oil is a healthier option, as it has anti-inflammatory qualities and lower amounts of omega-6 fatty acids compared with seed oils.

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Refined carbohydrates

Some of the biggest contributors to inflammation are advanced glycation end (AGE) products. These incredibly complex molecules interfere with the gene expression of peptides and cytokines. AGEs can worsen vascular disease and promote inflammation. Problem foods include refined carbohydrates such as white bread, potato chips, and white rice. High temperatures can also cause AGEs to develop. Researchers suggest that people with arthritis eat fewer foods that require cooking at a high temperature.

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Gluten

One of the biggest diet crazes of the 21st century was avoiding foods with gluten. While this recommendation may be unnecessary for many people, some individuals with arthritis may find relief by eliminating gluten products from their diets, specifically, people with gluten sensitivities. In case of gluten sensitivity, the immune system reacts to what it assumes is a dangerous material. Among the immune system’s most valuable tools is inflammation. Eating gluten, therefore, can increase joint pain in people with intolerances.

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Aspartame

When following a diet to improve arthritis symptoms, an individual may begin by making healthier choices, including cutting out sugary sodas and drinking diet beverages instead. However, this could make arthritis pain worse. Many diet drinks contain aspartame, an artificial sweetener. A few studies suggest aspartame may have anti-inflammatory effects, but a significant portion of the population has aspartame sensitivity. Without knowing, a person with arthritis may be triggering an allergic reaction by drinking diet soda and making their pain worse as a result.

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Nightshades

Nightshade plants give us veggies such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and even potatoes (but not sweet potatoes). Theories suggest the alkaloids in nightshade plants are to blame for worse arthritis symptoms and autoimmune disease flare-ups—they supposedly irritate the gut and cause inflammation.

Research is contradictory and does not support these theories, so the connection is tenuous at best. However, if you feel you're sensitive to produce from nightshade plants, avoid the foods and consult a dietitian who can advise you further.

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Red Meat

High consumption of red meat and fat can worsen arthritis symptoms. Heme protein is inflammatory, as is the saturated fat in pork, beef, and lamb. An excessive intake can lead to the early onset of rheumatoid arthritis, especially if other risk factors, such as a high BMI and smoking, are present.

Opt for chicken or turkey instead, or reduce your portion size and frequency of consumption to avoid pain or swelling.

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Coffee

Coffee has numerous well-established health benefits. More research is required to say for sure, but for those struggling with arthritis, it may not be advisable. Though coffee does contain antioxidants that may reduce inflammation and the risk for certain types of arthritis, caffeine can affect cartilage growth, so people with osteoarthritis may need to steer clear.

Even decaf coffee may increase the risk of developing RA. On the upside, those struggling with gout may benefit from some java.

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Foods High in Purines

Gout is a type of arthritis linked to high levels of uric acid. Uric acid forms when purines in food break down, so building a diet around foods that are low in purines may keep gout attacks at bay.

Foods to watch out for include red meat and offal and seafood, including shellfish, mussels, and anchovies. Foods like Vegemite that contain yeast are also problematic, as is—you guessed it—beer.

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Foods High in AGEs

AGEs are "advanced glycation end products." When sugar combines with protein or fat, the reaction results in this harmful compound. AGEs are present in fried, roasted, grilled, seared, or broiled animal foods, as well as French fries, mayo, and margarine, for example.

Foods high in AGEs increase inflammation. AGES can also accumulate in bones and joints, exacerbating arthritis.

Fried french fries in a plate with sauces. Snezhana Kudryavtseva / Getty Images

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Acidic beverages

Acidic beverages, including citrus juices and certain sodas, can be problematic for individuals with arthritis. These drinks may contribute to joint pain, particularly in individuals with gout or rheumatoid arthritis. The acidity in these beverages may exacerbate inflammation and discomfort. Choosing less acidic beverages, such as water or herbal teas, may help reduce the risk of aggravating joint inflammation.

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Processed sugary breakfast cereals

Many processed breakfast cereals are loaded with added sugars and refined grains, which can lead to spikes in blood sugar levels. These rapid fluctuations in blood sugar might trigger inflammatory responses in the body, potentially worsening joint pain. As an alternative, opt for whole-grain, low-sugar cereal options. Better yet, start your day with a bowl of oatmeal, which has known anti-inflammatory properties.

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Packaged baked goods

Packaged baked goods, such as commercial cookies, pastries, and muffins, often contain a combination of refined grains, sugar, and unhealthy fats. These ingredients can promote inflammation and worsen joint pain. If you have a sweet tooth, consider baking your own treats using whole, natural ingredients and healthier sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. You can also better regulate how much sugar is in the treats you eat when baking them yourself.

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Highly processed salad dressings

Many store-bought salad dressings are high in unhealthy fats, refined oils, and added sugars. These ingredients can contribute to inflammation when heavily poured over healthy salads. To maintain joint health, consider making your own salad dressings using olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a variety of herbs and spices for added flavor.

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Packaged instant soups

Packaged instant soups are often a go-to choice for a quick and easy meal, especially when time is limited. However, these convenient options frequently come with a hidden cost for individuals with arthritis. Most instant soups are notorious for their high sodium content, which is a key factor contributing to inflammation. Excess sodium in your diet can lead to water retention and elevated blood pressure, both of which can exacerbate joint pain and discomfort. Moreover, some packaged soups contain processed grains, which are generally less nutritious than whole grains and may further promote inflammation.

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This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.