There are people that I know and respect that tell me that diet affects their RA symptoms. Most frequently they avoid eating certain things that seem to worsen their RA symptoms or can even cause a flare.
I’m not one of those people. I’ve never been able to come to a cause-and-effect of what I eat and how my RA reacts. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t tried. With the close link between our digestive and our immune systems, this seems to be a logical approach. I’ve removed things like gluten and sugar and alcohol. I’ve added things like turmeric and tart cherry juice and have even tried gin-soaked raisins (mainly because I like gin and I like raisins). But I haven’t been able to see a discernible difference.
76 percent of us report no connection between diet and RA...
Turns out, I’m not alone. A recent survey published by Arthritis Care & Research (published by the American College of Rheumatology) and reported in MedPage Today, indicates that about 76 percent of us also report no connection – either improvement or worsening of symptoms.
But that means that 24 percent of us do.
The survey asked 300 participants about their symptom response to a list of 20 “inflammatory” and “anti-inflammatory” foods. Foods considered "inflammatory" included red meat, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, diet soda, and beer, while fish, blueberries, strawberries, spinach, red wine, and chocolate have been popularly described as "anti-inflammatory." (If anyone is doing testing on red wine and chocolate, I’d be happy to volunteer!)
This was a survey of patients. It wasn’t medically scientific in that they didn’t examine patients, have them eat specific foods, then re-examine them or do extensive lab tests. They simply asked RA patients how the foods affected their symptoms. It’s doubtful that all of the patients ate all 20 foods on the list so the answers are no doubt skewed a bit toward the more popular/accessible items. All this being said, the 300 respondents are enrolled in the Brigham RA Sequential Study, so there is every reason to have confidence in their answers. There were additional questions about lifestyle (exercise, sleep, etc.) and things like vitamin supplements, but the main focus was on how food connected to RA symptoms.
Blueberries and Fish
Interestingly (at least to me), the food most associated with improving symptoms was blueberries (11.1 percent), followed closely by fish (10.9 percent). The two foods most associated with worsening symptoms were sugar related with sugar-sweetened soda (12.7 percent) and desserts (12.4 percent). Another interesting result was that less than five percent reported caffeine affecting their symptoms. There is conflicting information on whether caffeine interferes with methotrexate, but for someone like me who uses methotrexate and drinks a moderate amount of caffeine, this anecdotal data is encouraging.
The most overwhelming result had nothing to do with food at all. More than 80 percent of the patients said that regular exercise and sleeping well helped improve symptoms.
My takeaway on all of this?
We all know that a well-balanced diet helps our overall health in numerous ways. Based on this survey, about one-quarter of us are more sensitive than others when it comes to specific foods affecting their RA symptoms (good or bad). Food is one of the easiest things to modify in your treatment plan. You’re the expert in your body and how you feel and taking control of your diet empowers you to make positive changes in your life.
And always, before you go too far off the reservation, discuss changes in your diet with your doctor. It’s well known that many foods (such as the innocuous grapefruit) can interfere with medications.
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