People with chronic inflammation often do their best to alleviate their symptoms without relying on medications, opting instead to find the best “natural” methods possible. And one of the most common ways to fight an autoimmune disease is by picking and sticking to a diet that minimizes inflammation. In fact, "clean up your diet" is likely the first thing a doctor will prescribe to patients with an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain and swelling in the joints when our body’s immune system starts to attack its own tissues. Anti-inflammatory diets are designed to help patients steer clear of foods that can trigger this inflammation while filling up with foods that can potentially fend it off as well.
“Chronic low-level inflammation has been linked to many diseases including type 2 diabetes, allergies, autoimmune conditions, heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Diet, exercise, stress, and smoking all contribute to chronic inflammation,” says New York City-based dietitian and nutrition therapist Alissa Rumsey.
But the fact is, there’s no one blanket anti-inflammatory diet that works for everybody because different foods can trigger different reactions for different people. For the most part, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, omega-3 fats, and antioxidants are the best foods to fight inflammation, though.
“It is best for people to add foods that are high in antioxidant compounds and can reduce inflammation while reducing excess refined oils, sugar, and trans fats,” says registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So what does your shopping list look like for a majority of anti-inflammatory diets? At least according to researchers, dried plums, blueberries, pomegranates, whole grains, spices like ginger and turmeric, and many oils and teas lower inflammatory cytokines, which are the chemicals released by the immune system when causing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
A popular diet often prescribed to people with autoimmune conditions is known as the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). AIP has an initial elimination phase of food groups that include grains, legumes, nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants), dairy, eggs, coffee, alcohol, nuts and seeds, refined/processed sugars, oils, and food additives, according to a 2017 study. After the elimination phase is completed, food groups are then reintroduced into the diet strategically as a way of testing what may aggravate inflammatory symptoms. Essentially, this diet isn’t about finding a one-size-fits-all fix for autoimmune diseases, rather it’s meant to help people learn how their specific body reacts to certain foods.
However, some doctors would suggest that there’s no reason to believe your diet can dictate or potentially even impact something like arthritis symptoms.
“This is very difficult to study and there are no clinical data to help tell us about whether this works,” says arthritis expert Joshua Baker, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. “What is known is that patients with rheumatoid arthritis do report a correlation between their diet and symptoms, suggesting there might be a link. There are also some reasons to believe that your diet may affect your immune system. However, it’s difficult to predict which dietary approach would have the best effect on arthritis.”
“I think diet might end up being a helpful adjunctive therapy, but it is unlikely that people will be able to stop all other treatments as a result.”