Have you ever heard the phrase “food is medicine”? Well, there’s an abundance of scientific evidence to suggest that — when it comes to joint issues — it is! Adding certain foods, spices and supplements to your diet (and cutting back on foods that feed inflammation) can make a big difference in your quality of life. Registered dietitian Maxine Smith, RD, LD, shares six healthy foods that may help ease your joint pain, highlights those foods that need to be avoided and recommends a joint-friendly eating plan.
How what you eat affects joint health
Most joint pain requires a combination of different treatment approaches, including medications, exercise, physical therapy and other lifestyle changes. But Smith is saying that a carefully curated diet is an important — and often overlooked — piece in the complex puzzle that is joint care. An eating plan centered on inflammation reduction can lessen pain in much the same way over-the-counter NSAIDs do.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is what happens when your body’s immune system gets … overexcited. If you cut yourself, your body responds by sending a horde of white blood cells to the wound to protect against infection. That’s a good thing: It’s a crucial part of the healing process. Inflammation becomes a problem when it’s chronic — when it decides to stick around long after it’s needed. It doesn’t have enough work to do, so it keeps itself busy by bothering healthy parts of your body. If you have a joint condition like arthritis, it’s not just the result of the wear and tear that comes from getting older. Inflammation is also in the picture. “Our goal isn’t to eliminate inflammation,” Smith explains. “Inflammation serves an important purpose. We just want to reduce it, to make it more manageable and less widespread throughout the body.”
Foods to eat that help with joint pain
There are a lot of foods out there that have anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving properties. Smith selects six to start:
You could combine all six of these foods and make quite a tasty meal for yourself! But for now, let’s break down each ingredient to find out how it can help you manage your joint pain.
1. Fish: Fish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Ideally, you want to eat fish that’s both high in omega-3 and low in mercury. A few fish that meet that criteria are:
Fish isn’t typically an everyday food outside of coastal communities, so you might be wondering if you could just take a fish oil supplement instead. It might be an option, but you should definitely discuss it with a healthcare provider first. Smith also notes that you may be robbing yourself of other important nutrients that fish offers. Instead of popping a pill, consider going for frozen or canned fish. It’s convenient, healthy and tasty and can help keep inflammation in check!
2. Cruciferous vegetables: “In addition to other vegetables, be sure to enjoy a host of cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or kale,” Smith recommends. “These are all nutritional powerhouses, chock full of phytochemicals like sulforaphane, which has potent anti-inflammatory properties.” Dark green leafy vegetables and orange vegetables are other important vegetable groups to work into your daily menus. Salads, soups, bowls and stir-fries are an excellent way to get all these in a single dish.
3. Turmeric: Turmeric — the bright yellow spice that you’ll find in many of your favorite curry dishes and that makes mustard yellow — has been used to calm painful, swollen joints for millennia. The pain-relieving ability can be credited to the curcumin in turmeric. Unfortunately, curcumin isn’t well used by the body, although consuming it with black pepper, healthy fats such as olive oil and in a heated dish can improve the absorption. A concentrated supplement can be the way to go if targeting pain relief. The types and dosages vary, so be sure to discuss any supplements with a physician before taking them.
4. Yogurt: A healthy gut is of prime importance when it comes to managing inflammation. According to Smith, regularly eating fermented foods — like yogurt — provides bacteria that help create a healthy gut microbiome. When you shop for yogurt, she recommends reviewing the nutrition facts label on the container to be sure it contains live and active yogurt cultures. Plain and unsweetened yogurts are the healthiest option, but don’t worry about being bored. “You can always enhance the flavor with an array of fruit, adding to the yogurt’s anti-inflammatory benefits!” she suggests.
5. Ginger: At some point in your life, somebody’s probably given you something with ginger in it to settle an upset stomach. But did you know that ginger’s also great for more than just a crummy tummy? “Ginger has antioxidant properties and reduces inflammatory enzymes,” Smith explains. “That’s, in part, thanks to a compound in ginger called gingerol.” The name sounds made up, but there’s nothing fake about gingerol’s impact. Clinical trials have shown that ginger is helpful for dealing with a wide range of inflammatory conditions, from osteoarthritis to lupus. With ginger, Smith notes that preparation is important. “When ginger is heated, such as in curries and soups, gingerol gets converted into shogaols, which have more powerful anti-inflammatory potential.”
6. Green tea: Green tea is one of the most popular beverages in the world. It’s also a nutritional powerhouse. It’s rich in polyphenolic compounds that help reduce inflammation across the board, not just in your joints. Quality matters with tea — and not just because it impacts the taste. In order to minimize the potential for consuming pesticides and herbicides, Smith recommends buying loose-leaf tea and rinsing it in water before steeping. Alternatively, consider purchasing a USDA- or Euro-leaf organic-certified tea.
In addition to eating foods with anti-inflammatory properties, you can also improve joint pain and stiffness by avoiding foods that kick swelling into high gear. “Sugars and refined grains, including white rice, pasta and white bread, are some of the worst culprits when it comes to inflammation,” Smith states. It’s true that “food is medicine.” But if you feel like you’ve cleaned up your diet and are still experiencing joint inflammation and pain, it’s time to seek additional health support.
The Cleveland Clinic