Eating for a Fight

You have rheumatoid disease (arthritis). It’s painful, frustrating, and scary. Friends, relatives, acquaintances, and even strangers earnestly suggest all sorts of remedies and cures for this strange disease you’re stuck with. Some of them claim that if you eat just the right things the right way, you’ll not only stop the pain, you’ll actually cure the disease!

So naturally, you hop onto the Internet to check these miracles out. After all, if you can cure this miserable disease right now, why wait for your rheumatologist to suggest that you drink acai berry juice and avoid eating tomatoes?

The Internet doesn’t disappoint. Type “foods that cure RA” into the search window and you’ll get 1,390,000 results. You’ll find pages that suggest you avoid all plants from the nightshade family: tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants, to start. (If you’re like me, that just changed your entire diet right there.) You’ll find pages that suggest gluten is the culprit; just stop eating anything with gluten in it, and your pain and other symptoms will disappear. Some pages are all about this or that dietary supplement or juice.

And I hate to say it, but all of them are either kindly misguided, err on the side of zeal, or they're just downright BS.

Here are the facts: There are no specific foods you can avoid, or eat, or drink, that will stop your pain or cure your rheumatoid disease. It’s an autoimmune disease, and scientists aren’t sure what causes it, but they suspect genetics, environmental factors like bacteria or viruses, hormones, and most recently, smoking (although there are people who have never smoked who have RD).

And here are some more facts: RD is notoriously hard to pin down. Drugs that might work well for you might have no effect at all on me, or vice versa. A rising barometer sends my joints into a tizzy; a falling barometer does the same to yours. The barometer doesn’t affect that guy over there at all. Instead, he hurts when it’s cold outside, or when it’s humid. The disease might start twisting my joints into bizarre shapes within a year or two of onset, and never cause any deformity at all in yours. RD’s symptoms and effects vary from person to person, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to treat.

That applies to our diets, as well. Maybe tomatoes do make your joints flare, so if you avoid them, you discover you feel better. Maybe when I don’t eat foods that contain gluten, I feel better, but that doesn’t mean that you will. Each of our bodies react differently.

So, if you really think that what you eat might influence the course of your RD, try eliminating foods that you think might be causing you to flare one by one. Say, for two weeks, chuck the tomatoes. If you haven’t flared during that time, or if the flares are mini, or mild, perhaps you’ve found a food you’d be better off without. If you flared badly in spite of living without BLTs and spaghetti sauce, then start enjoying tomatoes again. After all, there’s no sense in making life any less enjoyable than it has to be. Then try eliminating something else from your diet temporarily. It’s a trial-and-error thing.

As for adding things, like a miraculous supplement or juice made from rare berries and fairy dust, be cautious. The likelihood they’ll have any effect on your RD is miniscule, but you can be sure they’ll have a huge effect on your wallet. Proceed with skepticism and an abundance of caution. Ask to see multiple, credible, peer-reviewed studies that involve large numbers of subjects and controls. A lot of these shysters--I’m sorry, that’s what they are--try to make it sound like good science backs up their product, betting that you wouldn’t know a credible study from their official-looking gobbledygook.

The very best diet for your RD is the diet that’s best for your whole body and soul. You want it to be well-balanced, so it includes all the food groups. You want it to be nutritious, because your body needs every single, teensy nutrient it can get. You want to keep your portions reasonable, so you're eating the right amount for your own lifestyle, level of fitness, and body type. Finally, you want to drink lots of water. Water keeps everything moving, everything hydrated from your brain to your toenails. Don’t wait to get thirsty. Try to drink at least six measuring cups full of water each day. More would be even better.

So here's the best, all-round, nutritious diet I’ve come across. It's the Mediterranean diet, and it's simple:

  • Eat healthy proteins, like lean meats, chicken and fish, eggs, beans, and legumes--but all in moderation.
  • Eat lots and lots, and lots, of freshvegetables. In fact, go hog wild with the veggies. Fresh fruits are great, too, but pay attention to the carbohydrates--the sugars--in them. Moderation is key here.
  • Stick to small servings of whole grain breads, pastas, cereals, and brown rice.
  • Eat low-fat dairy foods, but in small portions and not very often. These are great for protein, but they pack a lot of saturated (unhealthy) fats into each ounce.
  • Use healthy, plant-based oils, like canola or olive oil, for eating and cooking.

Here’s what to shun if you’re serious about a healthy diet:

  • Foods that are white, including white bread, pasta, and rice. Exceptions: cauliflower and, in moderation, potatoes.
  • Pre-packaged, processed foods. If it has more than five ingredients, pass it by. If there's any type of sugar in it, it should show up at the bottom of the ingredient list.
  • Sugary stuff: cakes, candy, cookies, etc., except as treats on special occasions. I don’t want to be a total killjoy.
  • Greasy snacks, like potato chips, crackers, and the like. These foods are full of simple carbohydrates that turn into sugar in the body, and have lots of saturated fat and way too much salt in them. Danger, Will Robinson!

I know. It doesn’t sound like much fun. But you’ll be surprised how many fast, easy, truly delicious meals you can make using all fresh, nutritious ingredients.

And the result of all your effort? A body that’s trim, strong, and healthy. A body that feels good in itself, in spite of RD. A body that can put up a heckuva fight when the going gets tough.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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