Updated 18 January 2017

Arthritis and your diet

There is as no real scientific evidence yet that a specific diet can alleviate or worsen the symptoms of arthritis.


Claims regarding special magic diets are unproven by scientific research. There is, however, much evidence that a healthy, balanced diet is especially helpful for people with arthritis.

What is a balanced diet?

The following pointers are given by dieticians

1. Eating a variety of foods

A good diet includes choices from each of five different groups of foods, which are:

  • Breads and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fats and oils
  • Poultry, fish, lean meats or dried beans
  • Low-fat milk, cheese, yogurt

Why is variety important?

Your body needs the nutrients from these foods to help it grow and function. Those with arthritis often experience diminished appetite as a result of fatigue and pain. This can make it harder to get variety in your diet. If your joints are swollen and movement is difficult for you, it might lead to your avoiding certain foods, like vegetables, that are an effort to cook. Peeling or dicing can be hard on the joints.

Specific medications can also affect how well your body uses the food that you eat. Corticosteroids cause your body to lose potassium and to retain sodium. Antacids contain high levels of sodium and magnesium – an important thing to remember for those who have kidney problems. Colchicine (mainly used for gout) affects how well vitamin B-12 is absorbed. Penicillamine, often taken by those with rheumatoid arthritis, lowers copper levels on the body. Eating a balanced diet on an ongoing basis, will counteract these shortages.

2. Maintaining ideal weight

Apart from any other considerations, maintaining an ideal weight is of prime importance to arthritis sufferers, as any extra weight carried, places additional stress on your joints. In order to lose weight, you need to eat less and exercise more. See Arthritis and exercise for more details.

Avoiding foods high in cholesterol, fats and sugar

Foods high in cholesterol, fats and sugar should be avoided. Steer clear of takeaway foods and bakery delights, even though the fact that they are ready-made makes them attractive to those with arthritis. Not only will these foods make the kilo’s pile on, the extra weight also poses a risk for the many older arthritis sufferers who have high blood pressure or heart disease.

3. The role played by starch and fibre

There are a number of reasons why food high in starch and fibre are good for you. They give you the energy you need and keep your bowels regular. Constipation is sometimes a side effect of arthritis medication. These foods are often low in fat, but give you the vitamins and minerals your body needs. They help keep your weight down, but give you energy.

Especially if you cut down on sugary foods, your body needs the energy provided by these carbohydrates. Some arthritis drugs, such as the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs could cause diarrhoea, which is counteracted by a high intake of starchy foods.

4. Avoiding sodium and alcohol

Many pre-prepared foods, though they are very convenient, contain very high doses of sodium. A high salt intake is bad for those who also suffer from high blood pressure, as many older arthritis sufferers do. Some arthritis drugs, such as corticosteroids cause the body to retain sodium and water, which is bad for high blood pressure sufferers.

Choose foods with low or no salt added. Get into a habit of eating other spices on your food.

There are three reasons why those with arthritis should stay away from alcohol. It adds to your weight, it reduces the effectiveness of certain arthritis drugs and it can also weaken your bones.

Stomach problems are also likely to occur if you drink alcohol while taking nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or aspirin. Alcohol combined with acetaminophen can lead to liver damage as well as increase the uric acid in the blood.

Most doctors will advise you not to drink at all while on arthritis medication.

5. Important points to remember

  • Maintaining ideal body weight lessens the stress on affected joints.
  • A diet low in calcium and high in alcohol can lead to osteoporosis.
  • Obesity can lead to the development of osteoarthritis in the knees.
  • In individual cases, food allergies can worsen symptoms of arthritis.
  • Takeaway foods contain very high levels of sodium, cholesterol and fat. 

Claims that certain foods cure or cause arthritis have not yet been scientifically proven.

Read more:

Exercise to ward off aches and pains

7 everyday things that could be damaging your joints


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Arthritis expert

Professor Asgar Ali Kalla completed his MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 1975 at the University of Cape Town and his FRCP in 2003 in London. Professor Ali Kalla is the Isaac Albow Chair of Rheumatology at the University of Cape Town and also the Head of Division of Rheumatology at Groote Schuur Hospital. He has participated in a number of clinical trials for rheumatology and is active in community outreach. Prof Ali Kalla is an expert in Arthritis for Health24.

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