Healthy Diet May Reduce Chances of Early-Onset RA in Women

There is a lot of discussion in the RA community about diet. Some people report that avoiding certain foods like gluten helps keep the disease under control. Others point to having certain foods such as alcohol or sugar as sure-fire ways to induce a flare. There are a number of published diet plans that promise to reduce inflammation and, therefore, calm or even cure diseases like RA, psoriasis, and lupus.

I, personally, have never been able to link what I eat to how my RA reacts.

While there is a lot of science supporting the connection between a person’s digestive system and inflammation, I, personally, have never been able to link what I eat to how my RA reacts. I was, therefore, more than a little interested when I read a report that demonstrates a link between diet and early-onset RA in women. In this case, early-onset applies to women 55 years or younger.

The study covered approximately 170,000 women from 1984 to 2010. The 25% of women with the healthiest diets had two-thirds of the risk of developing RA by age 55 than the 25% of women with the worst diets.

Diet was assessed by the Alternative Healthy Eating Index (AHEI-2010) a dietary quality score based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans and composed of 11 foods and nutrients consistently associated with lower or higher chronic disease risk. “Healthy” foods included fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, certain fats, and moderate alcohol consumption. “Unhealthy foods” include sugar-sweetened beverages, red and/or processed meat, trans fat and sodium (salt).

Of the 1,000 women who developed early-onset RA, two-thirds of them were seropositive, meaning a test for R factor was positive. The other third were seronegative. So, for whatever reason, an unhealthy diet is more strongly tied to seropositive RA.

We know that an unhealthy diet can be linked with all kinds of medical issues including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers. This may be the first study to investigate diet and the risk of autoimmune diseases such as RA.

This study closely mirrors the results of previous work that found the link between obesity and RA seems to apply to younger women. It’s interesting that obesity and/or an unhealthy diet does not seem to impact the risk factor for older women. There is some speculation that there are differences between early- and later-onset RA.

While there might be things like genetics or general immune system function involved, hormone changes in older women may also play a role.

On one hand, this is pretty compelling because, like the people in the study, the vast majority of RA patients are women, so if we can figure out a way to delay RA through something as simple as diet, we can save years of pain and progressive joint disease.

On the other hand, the study subjects were all nurses, part of the Nurses’ Health Study, meaning they don’t necessarily represent the general population. While this study has contributed an enormous amount of information to scientific knowledge, the people in the study were mainly white, reasonably well educated, and able to generally afford a healthy diet and lifestyle.

So while there may be outstanding issues to be addressed here, this is pretty persuasive evidence that a lifetime of healthy eating habits can help a person avoid serious health issues later in life – not only by lowering heart, diabetes and cancer risk but also for inflammatory diseases like RA.

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