The impact of diet on chronic pain conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis has received a lot of buzz in recent years. In particular, there are studies showing the benefit of plant-based diets and how vegetarian diets may help reduce inflammation associated with arthritis. Numerous articles have been published in medical journals that suggest a whole-foods, plant-based diet can significantly improve arthritis symptoms.
Osteoarthritis is one of the most common forms of arthritis in the United States and the third leading cause of years lived with a disability. Treatment for osteoarthritis usually involves a combination of exercise, analgesic medications and lifestyle changes. Plant-based diets are low in arachidonic acids whereas typical Western diets are high in arachidonic acids as a result of a diet high in animal products (meats and dairy) and certain vegetable oils. A diet that is high in arachidonic acids has been linked to increased arthritic inflammation.
Researchers at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine suggest that the primary mechanism by which a plant-based diet helps reduce osteoarthritis pain may be the result of normalization of the fatty acid profile and a reduction in proinflammatory prostaglandins. Other studies have shown that a plant-based diet enriched with omega-3 fats from fish oil have improved complaints of pain in rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia patients. C-reactive protein levels, a marker for inflammation, were reduced when people were on a vegan diet, according to Dr. Nathan Wei, a rheumatologist at The Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Maryland.
There are four main types of vegetarians:
- Flexitarians – those who eat a mostly vegetarian diet but also occasionally eat meat.
- Pescatarians – those who avoid all meat with the exception of fish
- Vegetarians: (a) a lacto-vegetarian is a vegetarian who eats dairy products but not eggs (b) an ovo-vegetarian is a vegetarian who eats eggs but not meat or dairy products
- Vegans – those who do not eat meat, eggs, dairy products or processed foods. This is the most restrictive vegetarian diet.
The use of a vegetarian or vegan diet with its elimination of meat, fish, dairy and eggs should be discussed with your doctor first. In a 2014 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vegetarians and especially vegans were found to have lower Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D blood levels as well as lower calcium and essential fatty acids than meat eaters. If you plan on going on a plant-based diet, be sure to seek guidance from your doctor and a registered dietician for help with meal-planning and discuss whether vitamin and mineral supplements may be necessary including omega-3 fatty acids, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D and calcium.
While reduced inflammation is one benefit from going vegetarian or vegan, other benefits include lower blood pressure, reduction in cholesterol levels and body mass index as well as lower cancer rates and reduced risk of heart disease and dementia. Going on a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be a full-time commitment. Start with one meatless day a week and build up gradually to more meatless meals, advises Rene Ficek, RD at Seattle Sutton’s Healthy Eating. A modified vegetarian diet which includes fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines may be another alternative as it is easier to commit to both mentally and physically.
The traditional Mediterranean Diet is centered on vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and olive oil is the primary source of fat. However, meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products are still allowed but on a low to moderate basis. The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid categorizes animal meats based on saturated fat content. Meat, for example, is only allowed a few times per month whereas fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines can be eaten more frequently due to the lower content of saturated fat. Meanwhile, olive oil is considered the fat of choice with a Mediterranean Diet. Extra-virgin olive oil is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and can help to reduce arthritis inflammation and promote heart health. For those who may find a vegetarian diet too restrictive, adherence to a Mediterranean-inspired diet might be more effective.
Natural arthritis relief can be worked into everyday eating through changes in diet and careful meal-planning. Plant-based diets are now receiving increased attention as an adjunct to standard medical practices not only for the treatment of various forms of chronic pain conditions but other chronic long-term diseases as well.