7 Foods You Should Never Eat if You Have Arthritis

Arthritis, a condition that causes pain and inflammation in the joints, affects millions of people worldwide. While there are many types of arthritis, they all share one common characteristic: inflammation. Diet plays a crucial role in managing arthritis. Certain foods can exacerbate inflammation and worsen symptoms, making it essential for those with arthritis to be mindful of their dietary choices.


In this article, we’ll explore eight specific foods that you should avoid to help manage arthritis symptoms.


1. Sweets and Sugars 


Let's start with one of the biggest culprits behind increased inflammation - added sugars. Consuming high amounts of sweets and sugars causes your blood sugar to spike. This triggers the release of cytokines, which are inflammatory proteins. Over time, consistently elevated cytokine levels can worsen arthritis inflammation and pain. 


So which sugary treats should you limit or avoid completely? 


Soft drinks


Sodas and sweet tea contain huge doses of sugar, providing absolutely no nutritional benefit. Just one 12-ounce can of Coke packs 39 grams or about 10 teaspoons worth! Limiting soft drinks can have an immediate impact on lowering inflammation. 


The high fructose corn syrup found in most sodas places a huge glycemic burden on the body. This rapidly spikes blood glucose and insulin levels while flooding the liver with sugar it is unable to process effectively.


Over time, these blood sugar fluctuations cause tissues to become insensitive to insulin. This state known as insulin resistance directly triggers systemic inflammation through various metabolic pathways. 


Furthermore, the phosphoric acid used to enhance flavor in colas leaches calcium from bones over time. This can accelerate bone loss which is already a concern for those with inflammatory arthritis. 




Simple sugars like those found in candy, cookies, cakes, and chocolate prompt inflammation. As tempting as they may be, it’s best to cut out candy and replace these sugary snacks with anti-inflammatory options instead.


The refined sugar derived from beets and cane overloaded in sweet treats provides no nutrients, only empty calories that set off inflammatory processes. Candy often combines these simple sugars with unhealthy fats from chocolate, coconut oil, palm oil, or other sources. This combo overloads bodily systems, increases oxidative damage, and worsens inflammation.    


Over long periods, regularly spiking blood sugar takes a major toll on the joints. Elevated glucose facilitates the glycation process where sugars attach to collagen fibers and degrade their structural integrity. Weakened connective tissues in the joints become more prone to damage over time. 




Just like candy, pastries like donuts, cinnamon rolls, pies, and strudles provide empty calories mostly from refined flour and sugar. It’s better to get your sweet fix from fresh fruit which offers important antioxidants and fiber. 


Pastries overload the body with rapidly absorbing carbs that shoot blood sugar upwards and trigger insulin spikes. Over the years, this pattern has led to insulin resistance and metabolic dysfunction which boosts inflammation.


The triglycerides from butter, shortening, and other fats used in pastries get directly stored as body fat. This expands inflammatory fat tissue secreting proteins that worsen systemic inflammation.


Additionally, flours stripped of their nutritious germ and bran provide mere empty calories. Vital compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities are lost during processing. Few vitamins, minerals, protein, or fiber remain to balance out the sweetness as you’d find in whole food options like fruit. 


As you can see from these examples, popular sugary foods provide rapid spikes in blood glucose while fueling inflammation. By avoiding sweets as much as possible, you can better manage your arthritis symptoms. 


2. Dairy Products 


You may have heard debates about whether or not it’s safe to consume dairy if you have arthritis. The primary concern is that the protein casein found in dairy may promote inflammation in some people. On the other hand, dairy products also contain important nutrients like calcium, vitamin D, and protein. These building blocks are vital for preserving bone and muscle health. 


So what’s the bottom line? Should you avoid dairy entirely or is some intake okay? 


Here are some key points to understand: 


Some people do seem to experience worsened arthritis pain when consuming dairy. This may suggest an individual sensitivity to casein. However, more research is still needed.


Casein makes up 80% of proteins found in cow’s milk. For some, this compound triggers antibody attacks that instigate inflammation similar to an autoimmune reaction. Joint tissues swell and become painful as inflammatory chemicals build up. Those with rheumatoid arthritis seem especially prone to dairy worsening symptoms. 


Fat-free and low-fat dairy options are less likely to cause issues than whole-fat varieties. The main culprit may be saturated fats rather than casein itself.


Beyond casein concerns, saturated fats abundantly found in high-fat dairy are problematic on their own. Foods like butter, cream, and ice cream contain fats that must undergo conversion to be stored. This process releases byproducts that generate reactive oxygen species and kick off inflammatory processes. 


Fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir are easier to digest and less inflammatory. The “good” probiotic bacteria help break down lactose and casein. 


The live active cultures introduced during fermentation pre-digest milk sugar (lactose) and proteins like casein before you consume them. This makes these items easier to break down and absorb with less immunogenic effects. Additionally, probiotics help reinforce gut barrier functioning to limit inflammatory compound leakage into circulation.


If eliminating dairy provides relief, focus on getting necessary nutrients like calcium and vitamin D from non-dairy sources instead. Foods like leafy greens, nuts, and plant-based milks can help fill gaps.


Calcium is crucial for proper bone mineralization and vitamin D helps your gut absorb this mineral. Non-dairy foods like collard greens, broccoli, chickpeas, almonds, and enriched plant milk provide bioavailable calcium and vitamin D to support bone health without dairy. 


3. Fatty Foods 


Beyond added sugars and dairy, another key instigator of inflammation comes in the form of unhealthy fats. However, not all fats have the same effect on arthritis symptoms. The types of fats found in processed foods, fried items, and fast food tend to drive inflammatory processes. Meanwhile, the predominantly unsaturated fats in plant foods and fatty fish help resolve inflammation. 


What’s the difference? It comes down to how the chemical structure of the fat interacts with your cells:  


Trans fats


These unnatural and heavily processed fats ramp up immune activity, worsening inflammation and joint damage over time. Partially hydrogenated oils contain trans fats formed during high-heat induction designed to improve shelf stability. However, trans fat created through this industrial process wreaks havoc once inside the body.


These mutated fat molecules integrate into cell membranes, altering fluidity, signal transmission, membrane permeability, and cell functioning. Disrupted processes provoke systemic inflammation as the body reacts to the foreign invader. Over the years, elevated inflammation degrades cartilage integrity and accelerates arthritis progression. 


Saturated fats


While not as destructive as trans fats, eating too many saturated fats from meat and whole-fat dairy can burden the body and promote inflammation. Saturated fats, primarily from animal sources, are less efficiently metabolized compared to plant-based unsaturated fats. The body must convert these fats to be properly stored, overworking liver functioning.


This process also generates byproducts that trigger oxidative stress and inflammatory pathways. While moderate intake may not cause issues, excessive saturated fat consumption directly contributes to chronic inflammation. 


Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats


These plant-derived fats help regulate inflammation and offer protective benefits for joints. Foods like olive oil, avocado, and salmon provide anti-inflammatory omega-3s. The predominantly unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, plant oils, and fatty fish provide structural benefits making up flexible cell membranes. Their biochemical structure allows easier enzyme metabolism compared to saturated varieties.


Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats also regulate genetic expression, turning on genes that resolve inflammation while turning off pro-inflammatory triggers. This happens indirectly through the interactions between the digestive tract, bloodstream, and cell membranes. Intake of omega-3-rich foods also produces specialized pro-resolving mediators that actively reduce swelling.    


When planning your diet, limiting harmful trans fats and saturated fats is crucial for arthritis management. Instead, focus on incorporating more beneficial plant-based and omega-3-rich options to help resolve inflammation. 


Some of the top inflammatory foods to reduce include: 


  • Fast food like fries, chicken nuggets and burgers
  • Fried snacks like chips, cheese puffs, and donuts
  • Margarine and vegetable shortening
  • Fatty cuts of beef and pork
  • Packaged cakes, cookies and pastries


Choosing grilled, baked, or stir-fried options over anything deep-fried cuts out a major source of inflammation. And be sure to check labels carefully to avoid dangerous trans fats that hide in many processed goods. 


4. Refined Carbohydrates


Beyond fatty foods, a diet high in refined grains and flour also activates inflammatory pathways. Carbs from processed bread, snacks, cereals, and pasta break down quickly into sugar. This floods the bloodstream, causing glucose spikes, insulin surges, and eventual insulin resistance similar to sugary foods.


Also, the bran and germ portions of the grain containing fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals are stripped away during processing. What remains packs a heavy glycemic punch with fewer nutrients to balance things out.


Over the years, consistently overloading on refined carbs has led to obesity, diabetes, and metabolic dysfunction – all inflammatory conditions worsening arthritis.


Some examples of refined carbs to limit include:


  • White bread, bagels, crackers and pasta
  • Pastries like donuts and muffins
  • Sugary breakfast cereals
  • Chips, pretzels and snack foods
  • Baked goods like cookies and cake


Wheat in particular may be problematic, provoking digestive distress and immune reactions in those sensitive. Testing a gluten-free diet for several weeks can determine if avoiding wheat eases arthritis symptoms. Be sure to maintain balanced nutrition meeting fiber, vitamin, and mineral needs from other sources.


Additional Foods 


Beyond the common culprits we've already covered, there are a few other food categories that can contribute to inflammation. Understanding how these items influence arthritis can further improve your dietary strategies. 


5. Tobacco and Alcohol 


Many studies confirm that both smoking and excessive alcohol intake have inflammatory effects throughout the body. 


Cigarette smoke introduces an abundance of free radicals along with nicotine. This deadly combination devastates healthy cells, including those in joint tissues. Smoking impairs immune functioning and cripples mucosal defenses. This allows reactive oxygen species from inhaled smoke direct access to joint tissues through the bloodstream. Over the years, elevated oxidative stress levels degrade joint cartilage. 


Furthermore, poor blood flow caused by smoking inhibits nutrient delivery while allowing waste product accumulation. Cartilage relies on oxygen and nutrients to maintain regeneration capacity. Without these basics, joint tissues slowly degrade. 


Alcohol impairs immune functioning, instigates systemic inflammation, and may halt cartilage regeneration when consumed regularly. While light intake may not cause direct harm, chronic heavy drinking leads to widespread negative effects.


Alcohol metabolism relies on breaking apart fatty acids which can produce reactive byproducts. Constant exposure to these compounds coupled with micronutrient deficiency from excess drinking causes gradual cell damage. Hormone disruption is also common, negatively altering delicate inflammatory balances.  


Some types of inflammatory arthritis correlate with smoking and drinking:


  • Rheumatoid arthritis risk rises with smoking intensity and drops after quitting.
  • Psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis occur more often among smokers.
  • Gout flare-ups become more frequent with higher alcohol consumption.


If you suffer from any arthritis variety, work on reducing tobacco and alcohol intake. Both substances promote inflammation and joint damage over the long term. Prioritize non-dietary lifestyle measures as well like regular activity for natural arthritis relief. 


6. AGE Products and Gluten


Advanced glycation end (AGE) products emerge when proteins or fats combine with sugars. This process, known as glycation, takes place at an accelerated rate when food is exposed to high temperatures. 


Cooking methods utilizing extreme dry heat cause sugars and proteins to fuse together into novel compounds called AGEs. Oxidation further yields byproducts known as ALEs during this process. Both AGEs and ALEs trigger inflammatory signaling, increase oxidative stress, and cause tissue damage when consumed regularly. 


Fried foods, fatty meats, and pasteurized dairy contain some of the highest AGE and ALE levels. Minimizing intake of these cooking methods and items protects joints. Using lower-temperature cooking techniques preserves food quality without forming pro-inflammatory compounds. 


Eliminating dietary gluten may also curb inflammation for those with arthritis. Some emerging research shows improved symptoms, particularly for rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, after adopting a gluten-free diet. 


Gluten-sensitive individuals experience intestinal permeability after consuming proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. Immune cells pass through damaged gut lining to attack these compounds. But tissue structures in joint cartilage share similar shapes to gluten. So bystander activation provokes an eventual attack on joint tissues as well. 


Removing gluten sources allows gut barrier restoration. This stops further immune activity and can resolve inflammatory arthritis in gluten-sensitive people. 


Talk with your doctor about whether limiting these dietary compounds could enhance your arthritis management. 


7. Additives and Processed Foods 


Avoiding the additives and preservatives found in processed food should be another priority. Ingredients like monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial sweeteners, and sodium promote inflammatory reactions. 


Some examples include:  


  • MSG
  • Aspartame
  • Sulfates
  • Nitrites/nitrates
  • Phosphates
  • Excess salt
  • Refined vegetable oils


These additives introduce free radicals, shift gut bacteria ratios, interfere with cell signaling, and alter numerous body processes. Over time, regularly consuming food with these additions can trigger systemic inflammation.


Furthermore, processed and pre-packaged items tend to use lower quality ingredients compared to whole foods prepared at home. The cumulative effect of additives, unknown extras and nutrient deficiency takes a major toll on health.


When shopping and cooking, emphasize single-ingredient whole foods whenever possible. Limiting processed items minimizes exposure to excessive additives that tax bodily systems. Evaluating your favorite packaged snacks and meals for inflammatory additives empowers you to make the best choices.


In conclusion, managing arthritis effectively involves making informed dietary choices. Avoiding certain foods that exacerbate inflammation can provide significant relief from arthritis symptoms. While diet is a crucial aspect of managing arthritis, it's important to remember that it should complement medical treatment and advice. Consult with healthcare professionals for a tailored approach to your arthritis management plan.

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